Ruskin College. Growing snowflakes instead of a flint hard working class

New Mills. Coal Mining, Cotton & Methodusm. Redundant mills were bought up in the mid-twentieth century by a children's sweet manufacturer, Swizzels Matlow, famous for Love Hearts and Drumsticks.

Browsing through the Ruskin College prospectus, advertising the further education college for 2017-18 was a bit of a shock. The college is famous, there is a romance about its original intention to help working class people, mainly men in trades unions better themselves. They needed no formal education, just an interest in improving their minds and prospects.

Terms referring to self improvement are hopelessly outdated now; if this colourful brochure is anything to go by it emotional development and feeling safe which counts more than anything your intellect might be doing.

The first page, showing the ‘dreaming spires’ of old, Academic Oxford University, lists ‘Our Values.’ These are in order of importance: Students First, Respect for ‘everyone all the time,’ Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Then comes ‘Excellence,’ a word much down-graded from forty years ago when I was a student, when we used to see boasts about ‘centres’ of them. The list finishes with the more nebulous,’ Pride, Celebration and Loyalty.’

The prospectus makes their students status as fragile, vulnerable beings very clear. Page four of the brochure is headed: ‘Supporting you.’ Under that, first on the list of what they will be offered, way behind crochet mallets or gym membership, is ‘Counselling’ to ‘explore personal growth and development,’ that is purely of the emotional rather than the scholarly kind. Then there is ‘Guidance,’ anything to do with the college which might seem more normal and something students of the past would have been offered. But then comes, ‘Additional Needs Support,’ for anyone with ‘learning difficulties’ and the suggestion of applying for a grant if you are thus afflicted, then help with ‘Prayer and quiet time.’ There is a ‘dedicated room for prayer,’ not of course a chapel.

These are in all public institutions even airports now. At Kensington & Chelsea College where I once studied I was surprised to find there were no signs telling you how to get to the exam room but lots of notices pointing to the place of prayer. They are chiefly used by Muslims, but no one says that even though they dominate them. As a hospital visitor at Charing Cross Hospital in London I discovered that Muslims sometimes segregated men from women in the chapel by use of a sheet. They also had another room which could only be opened by a code, which was for men only.

I wondered who goes to Ruskin these days and if they resemble the great alumni of the past, including Jack Ashley, John Prescott, ‘the beast of Bolsover’ Dennis Skinner, or actress Maxine Peake. A photo shows five students sitting on a bench in the sunshine, four young women and one youth. The girls are all strikingly obese.

An old photo on Wiki shows a group of men playing croquet at Ruskin in 1901. John Prescott developed a taste for that sport when he took to the country house life-style, but the recent students photographed don’t look as if they would have the energy or inclination to wield anything heavier than chop-sticks. Rather than tough, resilient young social/academic aspirants, the children of the old proletariat whose fathers spent their lives down mines or in the ship-yards, these young people resemble nothing more than amiable fat children.

Within a few pages the prospectus offers a place of protection and safety for vulnerable children who are expected to be in emotional need. Although the college is reaching out for what are now underclass rather than old working class people, making it clear they need no qualifications to go there, emphasising the need for self confidence, it seems unlikely that anyone as robust as Prescott or Skinner will emerge from there again. In olden times coming from the working class, if you survived into adulthood, made you flint hard and ready for anything. These days coming from the soft bellied under-class seems to have the opposite effect.

7 Comments on Ruskin College. Growing snowflakes instead of a flint hard working class

  1. These remarks needn’t be confined to Ruskin, since they resonate with virtually every university I’m familiar with. As for intellectual development: When one famous ‘redbrick’ realised that too few students were achieving ‘Distinction’ status for their postgraduate work, the institution simply lowered the qualifying grade and then publicised the subsequent increase in ‘Distinctions’ being awarded as being attributable to improvements in the quality of teaching. Confronting legions of students who didn’t read, could barely write and who struggled to think was a major factor in my decision to leave academia.

  2. Oxford would be the most politically correct place in the Universe were it not for the competition from other Universities in the Anglosphere:-

    “A women-only college at Cambridge University has changed its policy to allow applications from transgender students. The Murray Edwards College, whose alumni include Sue Perkins, Claudia Winkelman and Tilda Swinton, said it is supportive of those who do not wish to define themselves as either …”

    It’s a race to the bottom. Cambridge is only marginally ahead…..for the time being.

  3. I am far more interested in the caption to the photograph and fond childhood memories of Love Hearts, Swizzlers and Sherbet Fountains!

    As for the rest, Bedlam resonates!

  4. In the early 1980s I was acquainted with a Ruskin College student who obtained his diploma (and went on to be a university lecturer in the Third World) despite not even being able to do joined-up handwriting. As an academic institution, Ruskin College was a joke even then.

    But it’s unfair of you to pick on the Ruskin College prospectus for its snowflakiness. I’m willing to bet that all the more reputable Oxford colleges’ prospectuses are just as bad.

    Although many of my Oxford tutors and lecturers in the early 1980s were famous scholars, I don’t remember learning anything of value from any of them. The benefit of an Oxford education comes from access to libraries where absolutely anything you might want to read can be found. Perhaps even some Ruskin students will discover that benefit before the libraries are burned.

    • Your comments are unfair and driven by spiteful, ideological bias. In other words your points are not objective. I went to Ruskin College between 1987-89 and I regularly visited many of the libraries including the small, hidden ones in my time there. I also attended lectures in several colleges and the English Faculty. Terry Eagleton’s lectures were packed at the time. I remember a seeing female student sketching him as Roman orator during one lecture. She had talent! Although we admired Eagleton’s intellect most English Ruskin students’ did not approve of his behaviour.

      I carried on my studies at St Andrews and at the University of Strathclyde. Some of the tutors at Ruskin were outstanding: Brian Spittles was an expert on Conrad and Stephan Regan (his wife at the time was Gaynor, who later married Robin Cook) later led the Dept. of English at Durham. I liked Raphael Samuel, the founder of the History Workshop for his love of oral history and charismatic lectures and discussions. These people inspired me to become a teacher and author. Several of my students went onto top universities including Oxbridge.

      Many of my fellow student contemporaries were successful students and had worthwhile careers. A few leftwing firebrands who had no real track record in the Labour movement before coming to the college and at least one ended up as a director of well-known company that benefits from Conservative corporate welfare. At the time a tiny minority were not cut out for academic life but they were the exceptions. The College usually made good decisions on students’ potential in admissions. I knew good friends who contributed to academic magazines even while they studied at Ruskin. One fellow used to write for Philosphy Now and gave a talk on an obscure aspect of Philosophy with others at Christ Church.

      Ruskin College felt the strain of Neo Liberalism from the Tories and later New Labour over several decades. It had to change just to hang on. Yet, it’s still there, but much changed from the College that I knew. Today Ruskin is one of many institutions that offers courses to mature students.

      Will the College again produce the many Labour MPs and Trade Union leaders that it did in the past? I do not know but I think a rebirth is possible rather like the one that an old tutor, Clement Atlee, gave the College all those years ago. Under Jeremy Corbyn Labour is in the process of changing and Ruskin is has a good chance of finding its true role once again.

      The article and your reply prompted me to find an digital video from 2001 that I made of Tony Benn days after 9-11 when he gave a stunning speech during a reunion. I’ll have it prepared for YouTube. He ended his speech by saying how he was going to give his recently deceased wife’s clothes to a charity shop. Given the tragic events in New York it was a poignant note to end on but life continues and so, too will Ruskin College.

    • I have been acquainted with Oxford graduates who were not exactly outstanding intellectually but I don’t infer from that experience that Oxford as an academic institution is a joke. It most certainly is not. Ruskin as a college of a second chance transformed the lives of its student’s. From Ruskin, I went to Merton College and greatly benefited from both.

      If PJR did not learn anything from his tutors and lecturers why did he condescend to go and stay at Oxford?

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