Higher Education: Ruskin strives to retain its role: Economic pressures have brought change to Oxford's labour movement college. Maureen O'Connor reports

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What future is there for a labour movement college in the brave new world of unit costs and competition, let alone Tony Blair's Model Party? It is a question that is being agonised over at Oxford's Ruskin College. 'I think there is a niche for the residential adult colleges,' says Stephen Yeo, Ruskin's principal. 'And so far the funding council has committed itself to diversity, including the sort of collegiate experience we offer. But there is a worry that they might turn into searchers after the cheapest supplier, and on those terms we cannot compete.'

Ruskin has gone through a period of considerable change already. The range of subjects is wider than it used to be when the Labour Party's new deputy leader, John Prescott, was a student there in the Sixties. It has a flourishing women's studies course, of which Dr Yeo is particularly proud, a diploma in community studies and a two-year applied social studies programme.

But it was outside pressure, including competition from much cheaper access to higher education courses elsewhere, that persuaded the college to reduce its traditional two-year diploma courses to one year, so doubling the 'through-put' of students. These are the courses at the college's core - in Labour Studies, Social Studies, Conflict Studies, English and History. The students are coping with the more intensive teaching, Dr Yeo says, and are moving on in the same numbers to university places.

The students themselves tell a slightly different story, claiming that the one- year diploma course is proving highly stressful. There is also considerable concern about students' ability to survive the course financially, and indignation at proposals to increase the residence charges next year.

Martin Cullen, who has made a study of the college as part of his Labour Studies course, found most students were living on less than pounds 50 a week after paying their fees, and that this would drop to pounds 15 a week if the fees increased. For students who are in their thirties, have been working and may have families to support, this is a serious problem. A significant number told Mr Cullen they would not have embarked on a course on that basis.

Ruskin College carries a burden of left-wing history out of all proportion to its size. It is tiny (165 places), attracts passionate commitment from students and staff, and is inevitably turbulent. Most students have come from clerical and manual jobs, although about one third of last year's intake had been unemployed. Most are active members of their unions.

Mr Cullen, from Co Tyrone, and Gaynor Sweeney, from Lancashire on a GMB general union bursary, complain that the college is still not offering the sort of leadership they expected.

They believe strongly that their belated education is a means to an end. The end is not simply entry to university but a return to an active role in their own communities, working for the betterment of their class, a word that may have gone out of fashion elsewhere on the left but is still used without affectation at Ruskin.

There is no doubt that Ruskin provides a culture shock for many of its students, particularly those who come on trade union bursaries from the traditional working class areas of Scotland and the North. Oxford presents them with another world both in the old sense ('you see all that grandiose tradition, you see who the enemy are') and in the new - the students were outraged to discover that builders working at the college were not unionised.

A recent row between the Catholic Society, composed largely of 'pro-life' men, and the women's group, which regards abortion and contraceptive rights as an article of socialist faith, typified Ruskin's split personality. The bandying about of phrases such as 'popery', 'patriarchal religion' and 'political correctness gone crazy' revealed a remarkable lack of solidarity and some old-

fashioned prejudices among comrades.

Dr Yeo, a historian of the labour movement, presides over this turbulence with an undiminished sense of conviction. He is determined that the college should survive the worst the modern world can throw at it, while remaining loyal to its political roots. 'I do believe a socialist college has a role in the modern world in helping people organise for change in unions, in political parties. Class has not gone away. There are still formidable differences in power between different groups in society.'

But he is aware the college will have to keep adapting. 'There is no point in staying defensively in old dug-outs.' His strategy includes taking in more local day students, tailoring short courses to the trades unions' precise needs, which are also changing fast, and exporting the college's expertise abroad.

However, he accepts that all the managerial and entrepreneurial changes into which the college has been pushed by the changing world outside should not, as the students fear it will, diminish its commitment to its roots.

'Working class adult education must mean something more than the fact that it is working class students doing it. It must be geared to their lives and the skills they need.'

Students these days, he says, are known as 'walking resources' in the new management-speak. 'We prefer to treat them as human beings.'

(Photograph omitted)