My friend Jane Struthers, who has died of cancer aged 70, devoted her career in university admissions to expanding the educational opportunities of young people from less affluent and multi-ethnic backgrounds.
She was born in Doncaster, the youngest of three children of John Minto, a bus driver, and Kathleen (nee Cook). Her parents divorced when Jane was young, and she was brought up by her mother with help from her maternal grandmother. It was here, in a mining area of South Yorkshire, that Jane developed her strong political views. For most of her life she was a member of the Labour party.
Jane attended Mexborough grammar school where she became head girl and a member of the debating society. Between 1969 and 1972 she read economics at Newnham College, Cambridge. I remember meeting her on our first day. Tall and attractive, Jane was never overawed by the more privileged members of the university, often holding court at coffee breaks in the faculty library. At Cambridge, she met Stephen Struthers, a fellow student, and they were married in 1977.
On graduating, Jane worked at the British Council before moving to Keele University in 1974. There she became involved with student admissions, to which she devoted the rest of her career. In 1988 she moved to Oxford University, in due course becoming director of undergraduate admissions. This was a demanding role, requiring highly tuned administrative and diplomatic skills, liaising between the university, colleges and academic departments.
There was also an important external dimension to her work, with periodic maelstroms of media interest that she had to field – most notably in 2000 when Laura Spence, a high-flying state-school pupil, failed to secure a place for medicine. Jane was passionate about widening access to the university, and used the public scrutiny to promote it.
Schools’ liaison work was strengthened and she was instrumental in setting up the first summer schools programme with the Sutton Trust, which gave students from less privileged backgrounds an insight into life at Oxford. With Cambridge, she established annual conferences at major sports grounds around the country to debunk misconceptions that may deter bright students from applying to Oxbridge.
In 2005 Jane underwent surgery to remove the first of two brain tumours. Following a lengthy rehabilitation, she retired from the university but continued to live an active life, volunteering for a number of local organisations. She and Stephen hosted language students and they also became “education guardians”, taking care of two boys on scholarships from Hong Kong; both are now at university and owe much to Jane’s guidance and support.
Jane bore her final illness with the same stoicism and courage she had always shown. She was warm, funny, generous and a wonderful friend.
She is survived by Stephen, their children, William and Harriet, and four grandchildren, Lucie, Arthur, Henry and Raphael, and her brother, John.