Mary Beard to fund two Cambridge Classics undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds

Her ‘retirement present’ of £80,000 will pay for the £10,000-per-year living costs of two students for the full duration of their course

Historian Professor Mary Beard will help fund two Classics students from underrepresented groups at the University of Cambridge as part of efforts to encourage more diversity among those studying the subject at the University.

Her £80,000 gift will pay the £10,000-per-year living costs of two undergraduates who are from both an “under-represented minority ethnic group” and a “low income home” for the full duration of their degree course, according to a press release from the University.

The award has been named the Joyce Reynolds Award, in honour of one of Beard’s own Classics tutors. The award will be administered by the Cambridge Trust, and will be available from the start of the 2021-22 academic year in October.

The criteria to receive the award outlines that you must be a UK student undertaking an undergraduate Classics degree (either the three or four-year course), be “socioeconomically disadvantaged” according to data provided during the undergraduate admissions process, and “identify as belonging to an ethnic minority group that is currently under-represented among Classics undergraduates.”

Professor Mary Beard (Photo credits: UOC_Universitat, Creative Commons License)

Professor Beard, who will retire at the end of 2022 after almost 40 years teaching at the University of Cambridge, said the gift is “payback” for everything Classics has given her, both “as a student and an academic.”

She continued: “It’s a retirement present from me. I am very conscious of what I’ve gained from Classics; no one from my family had a university degree. This subject has been my livelihood, it’s given me the opportunity to do lots of things – and it’s paid my mortgage for 40 years!”

As well as offering practical support to the students who receive it, Professor Beard said her gift is “symbolic” of the Faculty of Classics’ “commitment to attracting diverse applicants.” The department already has a schools outreach programme and its four-year (rather than the usual three-year) Classics course offers a preliminary year for students with little to no Latin knowledge.

Beard elaborated more on this aspect of the award: “It’s a pledge that we really do want people from more diverse backgrounds to study Classics. Classics is a subject that has changed, is changing, but needs to change more.

“We’ve done a lot of work in saying that you don’t have to have Latin and Greek before you come, you can learn it here and that this isn’t just for posh people who’ve done Latin for ages. But you still walk around the Faculty and it looks – although not entirely – very white.”

She hopes this award shows that the Faculty is “serious” about “equality of opportunity”: “I have no illusion that giving a couple of scholarships is the solution, but it’s a way of showing we’re serious about equality of opportunity. And if it makes the difference in someone choosing to study here that might otherwise not, if it makes inroads into any anxiety they might understandably have about financing their course, then it’s worth it.”

Beard discusses the benefits of studying Classics: “Classicists go on to get very good jobs. Our students are extremely smart, extremely motivated, intellectually able and flexible. They’re trained to think hard, to express themselves, to write well – qualities that a hell of a lot of employers are looking for.

“The idea that the only way of being certain of getting a good job is to take a professional, vocational qualification is just untrue. Classics hasn’t made me rich, but I’ve written popular books and I’ve made television programmes and it’s brought me more than I expected or hoped. And I think it’s payback time.”

Zaynab Ahmed, a third year Classics student at Newnham College, commented further on the experience of studying Classics at Cambridge: “I was lucky enough to attend a state grammar that offered Classics/Latin, but it isn’t something that’s taught in many state schools which means a lot of BAME students aren’t exposed to the subject and the opportunities it offers.

“That’s why the four-year course here is so important, with the preliminary year as a foundation, and this gift will hopefully mean more students from under-represented groups feel able to apply.

Zaynab continued: “Classics is a subject I’ve fallen in love with; it’s about the past, but it’s also about how we understand ourselves now. I’m always challenged, and even when I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Plato I’ve never regretted choosing it.”

In the 2019 admissions cycle – the most recent figures available – 26% of students who accepted a place on the three-year Cambridge Classics course came from state schools, and 14% were from BAME backgrounds, with British Black, British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students among the most under-represented.

In the same year, 83% of students who accepted a place on the four-year Cambridge Classics course came from state schools, and 22% were from BAME backgrounds, with British Black, British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi among the most under-represented.

The University has said that they are “committed to widening participation” – in 2020, they accepted more than 70% of students from state schools, and one in four from “under-represented and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.” In the same year, they also accepted a record number of Black students, representing a 50% increase on the previous year.

They added that they are “working hard to encourage students from less privileged backgrounds to apply”, whether it be through offering student bursaries or extra support through a variety of outreach activities.

In recent years, the University has introduced the use of UCAS Adjustment to reconsider candidates to exceed expectations in examination, created the Get In Cambridge campaign, and in 2021, launched a Foundation Year to “further increase the proportion of Cambridge students from state schools, low progression postcodes and from areas of socio-economic deprivation.”

Feature image credit: University Press Office, and Zde, Creative Commons License