OXFORD might be best known for its traditional colleges with their dreaming spires, but for the past 115 years it has also been home to a different kind of educational institution.
Ruskin College is planning to celebrate 115 years of educating the working class with events over the course of the year.
Now based in Old Headington, in premises which were recently redeveloped to the tune of £17m, the college is still providing educational opportunities to adults who have few or no qualifications.
Dr Chris Wilkes, the acting principal of Ruskin College, said: “One of the reasons we have been successful is that we have stayed true to our mission of educating adults who for one reason or another didn’t do well at school. That’s our original purpose.
“Obviously we are not part of Oxford University but our students have often gone on to university, including at Oxford.
“In an ideal world there wouldn’t be a need for us but there is and we educate a lot of students each year.”
ACTIVE: Ruskin College students on the march during a May Day strike in 1969
Nowadays the college hosts about 300 students a year on its long courses, which Dr Wilkes says means the college is fairly small and allows it to operate a tutorial system like Oxford University does – which he says is one of the reasons students choose it over other colleges.
When it was first set up in 1899, Ruskin’s focus would have been on the working class but since then it has opened its doors to anyone who needs a “second chance in education”.
Oxford was chosen as its location because of the city’s reputation for educational privilege.
And it remains the case that many of the college’s students have faced financial, personal or social obstacles that have made it impossible for them to seize educational chances earlier in their lives.
Dr Wilkes said: “People can be disadvantaged for a variety of reasons and they may come from a more middle class background but for whatever reason have not done well at school and gone on to university. It’s about educational disadvantage so people can come to us if they have not had that opportunity.”
POLITICS: Then Prime Minister James Callaghan at the laying of a foundation stone in 1976. Below: Pat Murray, president of the Ruskin Students’ Union at the time, responds to a speech made by Mr Callaghan later that day
The college’s links with the Labour Party and trade union movement mean many of its alumni have gone on to become politically active – these include some famous and radical personalities such as former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Jack Ashley, former MP for Stoke on Trent South and disability campaigner.
Dr Wilkes said: “We purposefully try to maintain our links with the trade union movement.
“Over the years we have had a number of people who have been quite radical and who have gone on in Parliament and in the trade union movement and we hope there will be more of this in the future. It is a good advert for the college.”
Van Coulter, a Labour member of Oxford City Council and a director at Ruskin, said his education there helped him realise his potential and helped him become a local councillor.
He said: “I was barely literate when I left primary school because of illness and as a consequence secondary school just went over my head. But having gone through Ruskin I received a first class honours degree, which just shows the potential that was within me.
“It gives people a great deal of latitude in how they approach their studies and it is not as formal as other educational establishments. Ruskin has been a part of the Labour movement for more than a century and when I cast my mind back to the first Labour MPs who were elected, everyone of them went to the college.”
LINKS: Former students Lord Ashley of Stoke and John Prescott, below
While many things have changed at Ruskin in 115 years, things have also changed at Oxford University, which is now making great efforts to attract students from deprived backgrounds.
Matt Pickles, a spokesman for Oxford University, said: “We spend £4.5m every year on outreach programmes to encourage students from all backgrounds to apply.
“More than half of our current students are from state schools, and one in 10 students come from a household income of less than £16,000 a year.”
RUSKIN COLLEGE HISTORY
Ruskin College was founded in 1899 to provide educational opportunities for working class men who had not been able to make it into university
It was deliberately founded in Oxford, where its American founders had studied, because of its reputation for educational privilege
The college was inspired by – and named after – Victorian art critic John Ruskin because of his writings on workers’ education
In 1909 a group of students who had formed the Plebs’ League because of concerns education was too pro-establishment went on strike when the principal Dennis Hird, who backed their cause, was dismissed
Originally based in St Giles, the college moved to its purpose-built building in Walton Street in 1912 where it remained for 100 years
Over the course of its history the college has been visited by figures ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Tony Blair, pictured.
In 2012 it moved all its activities to its Old Headington site and the Walton Street building was sold to Exeter College
John Prescott – former Deputy Prime Minister s Siaka Stevens – Prime Minister of Sierra Leone s George Woodcock – General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress in the 1960s s Dennis Skinner, above – MP for Bolsover and former chairman of the Labour Party s Baron Ashley of Stoke – former MP for Stoke on Trent South and campaigner for disabled people