The academic and broadcaster Mary Beard is to retire from Cambridge University next year and as a parting gift will leave an £80,000 fund to support two classics students from under-represented groups.
Despite recent efforts to increase diversity in the classics department, including offering an additional year for candidates with little or no Latin, Beard says the faculty remains “very white” and more needs to be done to attract different kinds of students.
The fund will cover the £10,000-a-year living costs of two undergraduates, who will be required to come both from a minority ethnic group and low income background, and will cover the duration of a four-year degree.
“It’s a retirement present from me,” said Beard, a classics professor who has taught at Cambridge for almost 40 years. “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!”
Beard went on: “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, 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.”
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The fund will be available from the start of the next academic year, this October, and will be known as the Joyce Reynolds award, named after one of the world’s leading ancient historians who taught Beard.
“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,” said Beard. “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.”
In 2019, one in four (26%) students who accepted a place on the three-year classics course came from state schools, and 14% were from BAME backgrounds, while on the four-year course 83% were state educated and 22% were from BAME backgrounds.
In a possible rebuke to the government and its skills agenda with its focus on employability, Beard said classicists went to get very good jobs. “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, added: “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.”