The £80,000 “retirement present” from the Cambridge historian will pay the £10,000-a-year living costs of two undergraduates from minority ethnic groups and low-income homes for the full duration of their degrees.
Dame Mary, who will retire at the end of 2022 after almost 40 years teaching at Cambridge, said the gift is “payback” for everything Classics has given her.
It comes as elite universities are under increased pressure to ensure talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds are admitted to degree courses.
Prof Beard said the Joyce Reynolds Award – which is named in honour of one of her own Classics tutors – is symbolic of the faculty’s commitment to attracting diverse applicants.
You still walk around the faculty and it looks - although not entirely - very white
She said: “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, 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.
“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.”
In 2019, only one in four (26%) students who accepted a place on the three-year Classics course at Cambridge came from state schools, and 14% were from BAME backgrounds, with British Black, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students among the most under-represented.
The award – which will be available from October – will be given to two British Classics students who are both socioeconomically disadvantaged and from an ethnic minority group that is under-represented across the subject.
Prof Beard said: “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.”
She added: “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.”
The University of Cambridge offers a four-year Classics course, as well as the traditional three-year course, so students with little or no Latin have a preliminary year to catch-up.
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
The majority of students (83%) who were accepted onto the four-year course in 2019 came from state schools and more than a fifth (22%) were from BAME backgrounds, figures show.
Zaynab Ahmed, a third-year Classics student at Newnham College, said: “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.”