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Single-sex colleges: a dying breed?

Durham Cathedral
All of Durham University's colleges are now open to both men and women
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY IS the only university left in the UK to have women-only colleges. Oxford’s last single-sex college became mixed in 2006, and Durham’s sole all-female college reluctantly opened its doors to men in 2005. Are the days of single-sex colleges really over? And if they are, what does that say about modern university life?

All universities were strictly men-only until Cambridge’s all-female Girton College was established in 1869. The college was a chance for women to gain an education on a par with men, even if their career options once they graduated would still mostly be limited to being a wife and mother.

And while definitely a positive move towards full equality, Girton was still a college of its time - the college was located two miles away from the male students who lived in the town centre ‘for reasons of Victorian respectability’.

Gender divisions

Despite women becoming more accepted in the 20th century and gaining entrance to the formerly male-only colleges, many female-only colleges remained steadfastly unmixed.

“It was not appropriate for all the women's colleges to change status as soon as the first male colleges began to accept women,” explains principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford, Judith English. “It took time for the number of women in the university as a whole to reach the present level and not all 'mixed' colleges had equal representation of women.”

In the 21st century women have the vote, they have access to almost any career, and they have equal rights regarding property and relationships. Is the move from women-only to mixed colleges a sign that women are no longer disadvantaged in society? Judith English doesn’t think so. “At higher levels of academia women are still under-represented and this is still true in many areas of employment,” she argues. “There is also the problem of salary differentials.”

Jenny Hobbs, principal of St Mary's College, Durham agrees. “I think the glass ceiling still exists and some would say it has ceased to improve, or that it is getting worse again. Look at the number of women reaching senior managerial positions, for example.”

There is also the issue of instutionalised sexism. Despite more women than men now studying at the University of Oxford, women are awarded fewer firsts. Dr Mellanby from Oxford’s department of experimental psychology conducted research to investigate the inequality. "One explanation may be the way in which exams are set and marked,” she explained. “Men may benefit from the ‘bullshit factor’, or a more confident style which produces answers which are deemed worthier of a first than the slightly more tentative, balanced answers produced by many women.”

So women may be studying at Oxford, but they are still part of an old boy’s network that seems to reward stereotypically masculine behaviour.

Voting with their UCAS forms

More women are attending university than ever before. In 2005/06 there were over one million female undergraduates across the UK, compared to 740,000 male undergraduates. And yet the women who are applying to collegiate universities seem largely uninterested in attending an all-female college.

Ultimately, it is the statistics and economics of student admissions which create change. In 2005, Durham University decided that St Mary’s should become mixed, despite opposition from both the college staff and 45% of St Mary’s students. But it could be argued that the decision was made not by the university but by prospective students; since the 1980s there has been a continuous fall in the number of students who nominate St Mary's as their first choice college when applying to Durham.

St Hilda’s at Oxford faced similar pressures: only a quarter of the college’s students actively chose to attend a women’s college. There were also problems in terms of recruiting teaching staff. “While the governing body was required by statute to be all female, the college had struggled to fill tutorial fellowships in science and we became concerned about the quality of our teaching provision for science students,” said Judith English.

“I feel safe and comfortable here”

Despite a general move towards mixed gender colleges, Jenny Hobbs believes there will always remain a need for some level of single-sex living arrangements. “We know there is a significant minority of women applicants who prefer – or even require – to live in a self-contained area for reasons of their health, culture or faith, or just from personal preference,” she said. For this reason, one wing of Durham’s St Mary’s remains women-only.

One student living in the women-only wing is Raya Alkhajib, a 19-year-old first year law student from Saudi Arabia. "Being able to choose a single-sex wing made a huge difference for me and my parents,” said Raya. “It's completely different to being in a single-sex flat or floor as in both situations there could be men living just across the hall or shared landing. I feel very safe and comfortable here.”

Ultimately, it is up to the universities to create some sort of environment in which all students can feel relaxed and secure. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean an entire single-sex college, but as Jenny Hobbs explained: “It is important to protect the interests of minority of women. For these women, access to single-sex accommodation might mean the difference between gaining access to the typical student experience at a collegiate university and not going to a residential university at all.”

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