Impressions & Impact — Athene Donald reflects on her first year as Master

23rd October 2015 in People, Women at Churchill

Professor Dame Athene Donald

When I arrived in the College, indeed even before that, I was told what a friendly and unstuffy place Churchill was.

That has absolutely proved to be the case, to my pleasure. Everyone has been immensely welcoming to Matthew and me and we feel really fortunate to have joined such a delightful community. I find I have also joined a College with its academic standards flourishing. Third place overall in the Tompkins Table of colleges was a tremendous achievement by our students last summer, testament to their hard work and all the inputs of supervisors and tutors to support them. Testament too to many other College employees who keep them in a good state: the support staff from bedders to porters and not forgetting the catering teams who keep everyone well fed. My impression after my first year is of a well-oiled machine where everyone works well together and who collectively know what our goals are.

However, there is no hiding the fact the College — like every other part of the higher education sector — is facing challenging times. After the last Government failed to produce a Higher Education bill we are expecting one soon from this Government. The issue of the level of fees is a key one in terms of the costs to students and their parents as well as to the College’s finances (and the wider University’s). I worry for the students of today who will leave with so much debt around their necks, something previous generations were spared. I worry in particular that it puts off some who come from less affluent backgrounds who imagine (incorrectly) that Cambridge is a relatively expensive university to come to. The Office of Fair Access to Higher Education (OFFA, although colloquially referred to as OFTOFF) has a keen interest in widening participation, as do we all, and will continue to push the university overall to improve its diversity of intake. Churchill has a high percentage of state school entrants, indeed amongst the highest of Cambridge colleges, but we are nevertheless no doubt missing talented students who don’t realise that the College could indeed be ‘for them’ and time, effort and money will need to continue to be directed to our work reaching out to schools to do even better and funding bursaries for those in need once they arrive.

Diversity is a challenge within the College in another way which is perhaps surprising given that the College was the first men’s college in Cambridge to vote to admit women at the start of the 1970’s: we have a rather low percentage of women in our undergraduate population currently standing at around 35%. I have made no secret of the fact that I hope we can push that up to closer to 50%. That we are required by statute to have 70% students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects makes the numbers perhaps not so surprising — Physics A level still has only around 20% of girls taking the subject which feeds directly both into the physical sciences part of the Natural Sciences Tripos as well as Engineering — but we need to do more to reassure girls in all subjects that this College will suit them.

Likewise we need to remind everyone that, despite that figure of 70%, we really are a fantastic place for the arts too: I am constantly astonished by the breadth of material in our Archives and we need to trumpet this remarkable asset to our students as well as to the wider world. Hence another short term goal is to raise funding for a cohort of Masters’ students in areas relevant to the Archives, subjects like History and Politics.

I feel I have come to a remarkably welcoming place where excellence is the watchword. I feel immensely fortunate to be Master of this wonderful College and I look forward to the months and years ahead. There are many exciting activities to look forward to!

— Professor Dame Athene Donald, Master