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  • Students: A Gendered History
  • Keith Vernon
Students: A Gendered History. By Carol Dyhouse (London: Routledge, 2006. xiv plus 273 pp.).

As is well known, the number of students having some experience of higher education in the UK has mushroomed in the last decade or so. This has built on a slow, then steady expansion of student numbers from early in the twentieth century, transforming a decidedly elitist experience into almost a common one. Given the increasing importance of students as a social grouping, with obvious implications for economic, political and cultural life as well, there is a remarkable paucity of literature on the history of students. This book, then, is much to be welcomed. However, it is not a general history of students, even a gendered one; instead it offers a series of case studies, many of which have been published elsewhere, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, which chart some key issues and themes. The central theme, of course, is gender. Dyhouse argues that "some of the most dramatic aspects of social change in higher education over the last hundred years have been associated with gender" (p. ix). Overwhelmingly, the book is in fact about women students, although generally set against a gendered backdrop, and with many observations on the effects on masculinity of the advent, and expansion in the numbers of, women students. Dyhouse acknowledges her partiality by refusing to apologise for concentrating on women. Indeed, there is no great harm and much to be gained by emphasising the role of women students. [End Page 503]

The book consists of a series of case-studies, divided into two parts. The first part concentrates on 'Access and Ambitions' and provides an account of the growth of student numbers and the emergence of women as a significant component of the student body, particularly in non-Oxbridge institutions. In quantitative terms, Dyhouse presents an argument that there was a dip following each of two major periods of expansion, shortly after the world wars. While there was a backlash against women encroaching on male terrain, often by ex-servicemen, in each case, the decline during the 1950s accompanied broader trends of women marrying and starting families earlier, limiting the opportunity for higher education. Sustained expansion in the numbers of women students, then, was achieved from the 1970s, especially with the growth of the Robbins universities and the admission of women into male Oxbridge colleges. There is a chapter devoted to the particular fortunes of women at the London medical schools between the wars, which highlights the extent of the reaction against them. The first part of the book also offers important insights into some of the everyday financial experiences of university life and the decisions, often at the level of the extended family, that had to be determined before many a man or woman could consider attending. Here Dyhouse draws on a significant volume of evidence derived from an extensive series of questionnaires completed by former students. These sections offer some of the most interesting material, in opening up the lives and experiences of students. They serve to undermine the traditional stereotype of the aristocratic Oxbridge student, and have poignant resonances with the experiences of many students today, once more deprived of a living grant.

The second part complements the first, but focuses especially on 'Co-educa- tion and Culture' and some of the ramifications of the expansion of the numbers of women students for questions of identity, both male and female. It also has more of an Oxbridge and London focus. A common theme is the sense of siege mentality. Male colleges felt their particular traditions and ethos to be under threat, but so too did traditional women's colleges from the development of new female institutions or moves towards co-education. It was perhaps the existing women's colleges that had most to lose as male colleges by the 1970s began to see able women students as a potential asset, with the capacity to attract other male students, rather than the drawback they had previously been held to be. Again, the case of the London medical schools throws into relief the issues of prestige, culture and...


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