Cambridge & diversity

A diverse history

The Cambridge & diversity project celebrates and explores eight hundred years of University of Cambridge history by highlighting the stories of its past, and current, staff and students.

The year 1209 saw a group of scholars flee Oxford and establish what was to become the University of Cambridge, now a vibrant and diverse university with 20,000 students, over 8,000 staff and an international reputation for both teaching and research.

The last 800 years has seen Cambridge provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for those wishing to engage at the highest levels of academic endeavour. People from many different backgrounds have studied, lived and worked here and such diversity has not only enriched the University itself, but has led Cambridge to take the forefront in many of the contentious human rights debates over its history.

In 1784 the University's Vice-Chancellor Peter Peckard spoke out publicly against slave trade and set an essay competition with the question ‘Who has the right to enslave someone against their will?’ The winning entrant, Thomas Clarkson, an undergraduate at St John's College, then dedicated seven years to raising public awareness against the slave trade.

Much of the work pioneering the acceptance of homosexuality was also conducted at Cambridge with Edward Carpenter, who graduated from Trinity Hall in 1862, was a leading advocate of homosexual equality and an early socialist, expressing his views publicly despite the illegality of homosexuality in a number of publications.

In fact the University has always had a reputation for being gay-friendly, with evidence stretching back as early as the seventeenth century. A memorial from 1619 in Gonville & Caius Chapel celebrates the relationship and love between the college's master Dr John Gostlin and his friend Dr Thomas Legge, sometime Vice-Chancellor of the University. St Catharine's alumnus Sir Ian McKellen was one of the founding members of Stonewall, a organsisation of which the University is a proud member, that works to achieve equality and justice for lesbians, gay men and bisexual people.

Through out the years the University has also had a constant influx of students from abroad, bringing both new ideas and cultures to the institution. As time progressed students came from all corners of the globe, including Indian and Japanese scholars who were to become important figures in their own countries.

The nineteenth century saw women studying at Cambridge for the first time. While initially unable to receive degrees, as time progressed both their numbers and their status within the University equalled that of their male colleagues.

The last twenty years has seen an emphasis on attracting students from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds. 1989 saw the introduction of the University's GEEMA (Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications) programme, which was set up as a joint venture by students and the Colleges of Cambridge to encourage ethnic minority applications. The programme was one of the first of its kind in the UK and has led to the development of a wide range of widening participation initiatives at Cambridge.

Over the course of 2009–10 we presented the stories of a wide variety of Cambridge members, past and present, which highlight that the University has always sought to be a place where diversity and difference was celebrated.