Admissions in Balance

Last October when I sat at the undergraduate Matriculation Dinner and looked across Churchill College’s large Hall, I was dismayed to see that the proportion of Freshers was very far from a 50:50 mix of men and women. I am sure I was not alone amongst the Fellowship in recognizing that the College that had been pioneering when it voted to admit female undergraduates from 1972 had inadvertently taken its eye off the ball. Of course, being uniquely a College that is required by its statutes to admit 70% of its students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects raises challenges. Typically the percentage of girls taking A level Physics nationally sits around 20% so, as a College with a large number of engineers and physical scientists we should not necessarily expect to have an equal number of men and women – however much this would be desirable in an ideal world. Nevertheless, last year’s undergraduate intake of only 28% women seems to have been something of a low point, literally and metaphorically.

The Tutorial team immediately identified that the root of the problem is that only around a quarte of our undergraduate applicants were female, and then worked hard to identify where and how we might make progress. I am deeply grateful to all of them and in particular the Senior Tutor because some refocusing of some of our processes has led already to some significant improvements. This year, having seen the A level results come in and being able to confirm admissions, we have reached a somewhat more respectable percentage of 36% women. We have more to do, and some of the changes we have made will take time to make their mark. In particular, we need to ensure that female students in the schools do not look at Churchill and simply think ‘this is not for me’. If they don’t apply it makes it hard for us to admit them. Getting smart students applying is a crucial part of admitting them!

So what have we done over the past year? We ran focus groups amongst our undergraduates to find out how they perceived the college, what they liked and what they thought we could do better. Words that kept coming up were things like ‘open, ‘inclusive’, ‘forward-looking’ and ‘friendly’ as well as a vocabulary more obviously associated with academic progression. We wanted to capture this perception of the college in a way that schools and prospective applicants could appreciate. To that end we commissioned alumna and Emmy-award winning producer Sally Angel to produce some short films. ‘Churchill College in three words’ can be found on Youtube as well as on the College website. It is a quick indicator of some of those factors we are proud of within the College, beyond academic prowess.

However, we are an educational establishment and the strength of our academic record is hugely important to us. We are proud of the fact we usually lead the Cambridge Colleges in respect of state-sector undergraduate entrants; this year more than three-quarters of our UK undergraduate entrants are from state schools and colleges. We manage that success while still sustaining an outstanding academic performance: this year we came fifth out of 29 colleges in the Tompkins Table, the unofficial Cambridge ‘league’ table, and have averaged fourth over the last ten years. No mean feat for a college a mere 50 odd years old.

To illustrate a bit more about what the college is like to prospective students Sally produced two further videos, one about life in College for Arts and Humanities students and one for Science students. I often find it surprising that, given the wonderful resource we have in the Churchill Archives students wishing to study modern history or politics don’t immediately recognize that the College’s treasures would be of immense benefit to them, but clearly the Archives does not yet feature in the attractions sixth-formers see. This factor is something else we are working to change. A new permanent display about Churchill, the man, and the association with Churchill, the College, has been mounted outside our main lecture theatre for students and visitors alike to look over. The display utilises material from the Archives, and showcases some of the other collections (e.g. Rosalind Franklin’s papers) that we possess as well.

What else can the College do to raise its profile with the female half of the population? Through my association with Edwina Dunn’s project The Female Lead we have ensured that a copy of the wonderful book and resources produced by her team in association with the award-winning Lacombe sisters has been sent to around 600 schools with which the College works. The project aims to encourage girls to aim high and to aspire to leadership positions. The video about my own life can be found here, but there are 59 other films on the website about women from all kinds of spheres to inspire the next generation. Since my arrival in the College I have also set up a series of public Conversations with senior women from academia and beyond to showcase their lives and to enable us to discuss the pitfalls and delights of their careers. Podcasts of these are all gathered together here, where videos of the last two events (with Professor Alice Roberts and Dame Sally Davies) can also be seen.

As the first female Master of this pioneering College I am determined we will see a more balanced-intake of students in the future and in the Senior Tutor Richard Partington and the entire Fellowship I have a determined community behind me. We will continue to work hard to attract bright minds, wherever they are found, and to ensure that those who join the College will be supported and challenged. All the material about ‘Women at Churchill’ can be found on the College website. By the time I step down as Master I am confident that the temporary downturn in the numbers of female students I observed last year will be permanently turned around and our community will continue to thrive.

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2 Responses to Admissions in Balance

  1. Rachel Berry says:

    Churchill is doing way better than Murray Edwards on diversity and STEM admissions… New Hall was awful for STEM, no course / tutorial partners, poor computing / STEM library collection. A little female STEM ghetto! And still going on ?

  2. N Carson says:

    Perhaps I wasn’t on the ball or YouTube wasn’t big enough when I was applying to Oxford (2009)… but when I was choosing colleges I made my decision solely based on the prospectus. It seemed impossible to make an informed choice so I went with factors like ‘is the library open 24/7’ and ‘can I make my own meals’, and eventually whittled my choice down to two colleges and just picked the one that seemed nicer. Had no idea whether my choice was good or not – how can you know unless you come from a family/school/area with a strong Oxbridge history? Never looked back.

    I’m not as familiar with Cambridge but even before applying I was aware that St Hilda’s at Oxford (still) takes a lot of women, and Wadham takes a lot of the LGBTQ crowd (as my mum said, “don’t go to Wadham – I’ve heard it has a lot of gays and lesbians”, not knowing I myself am one of those disliked people).

    I may be misjudging today’s crowd of wannabe undergrads, but I’d look to the prospectus as where to choose. By the time they look at YouTube, they’ll probably have already decided.

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