Access to higher education

When I applied to Royal Holloway and Bedford New College for admission as an undergraduate in 2001 I didn’t know that, before their merger, both colleges had been pioneering women’s colleges.  Now, as a postgrad on the MA in Public History, I have had the opportunity to research the history of both colleges and have found that until at least 1940 it was mainly middle and upper middle-class girls who were able to take advantage of the university education on offer.  This was the express wish of the founder of Royal Holloway College, Thomas Holloway, who set out in the Foundation Deed for Royal Holloway College that his college should ‘afford the best education suitable for women of the middle and upper classes’.  In 1995, Carol Dyhouse conducted a survey of the social backgrounds of 58 women who graduated from Royal Holloway College and 87 who graduated from Bedford College before 1939.  She found that approximately 85% of the women were from upper-middle and middle class backgrounds.

Students who applied to Bedford College and Royal Holloway College in the 1960s cannot have been unaware of the colleges’ histories as women’s colleges.  It was not until 1965 that men were admitted to either college!  What I am interested to find out is whether the backgrounds of the students admitted in the 1960s were the same as in the early years of the colleges and if there was a change during the decade.

Annabel Valentine, the College Archivist, explained during a seminar this week that the opening of the colleges to male students arose from the conclusions of ‘The Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins’ that university places ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’.  I think it will be interesting to examine if there is any change in the backgrounds of the students after the publication of this report.  It will also be interesting to see if the backgrounds of the male students are similar or different to the female students and whether this is the same or not at Royal Holloway College and Bedford College.  If this oral history project of interviewing former students continues across different decades this will produce a fascinating resource of the nature of access to higher education.

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