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Forget Ruskin and William Morris: this woman wants to take the flat cap out of the working men's college

One of England's oldest adult education colleges, founded 150 years ago to provide a liberal education for working-class men, is being rocked by an internal dispute over claims that its governors are betraying its socialist roots and succumbing to the pressures of the marketplace.

The Working Men's College, in Camden, north London, which boasts John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charles Kingsley among its former staff, is the focus of a clash between a philanthropic educational tradition in which teachers once worked for free, and the harsh reality of modern further-education funding.

The battle to dictate the identity of the college in the next millennium has pitched a group of staff, claiming an ally in the ghost of the institution's Christian Socialist founder Frederick Maurice, against the principal, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, Labour's deputy spokesman in the House of Lords.

The row centres on plans approved by the college corporation, a board of trustees and directors, for a fundamental shake-up of the way the institution is governed. The proposal is for the present system, in which the corporation oversees the college's trust funds but delegates educational and policy matters to an elected council of staff and students, to be replaced with a single governing body.

The rebels claim the move, which they hope to challenge in the courts, is undemocratic and out of keeping with the founder's ideals since it would leave no more than one-third of seats on the new body for teachers and students. But Lord McIntosh and the college's warden, Evelyn Murray, insist that a change is essential if the tradition of providing education for people with little access to other forms of study is to be continued.

Malvern Hostick, art teacher, college council member and a critic of the reforms, fears they will destroy a key aim of the founder who saw students taking control of their studies. "FD Maurice and his contemporaries felt teachers and students should learn from each other, and that students should eventually set their own curriculum," he said. "I think they would be rather dismayed that, thanks to market forces, we are going back to an autocratic system."

The principal and warden give short shrift to the rebels' claims to speak for the founder. The college, which today has more than 2,000 students, two-thirds of them women, has long left behind its tradition of unpaid teaching, and has only two such staff left, Ms Murray says. "In its heyday, the lecturers were civil servants, lawyers or clergymen who worked in the morning and then came to college for a meal and a bit of teaching in the evening. Nowadays, ambitious barristers are on the next plane to New York."

A report last year by inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council, which finances 15 per cent of the college's courses, praised some teaching but found "significant weaknesses" in governance, management and quality assurance. Following the report, the corporation set up working groups to devise an action plan, which included the new governance.

Lord McIntosh says the present system does not work. "Very few students or staff stand for election and the corporation and council don't actually do the things that are necessary - they don't make difficult decisions on the budget or establish the educational programme." The college had interpreted the founders' intentions in the language of the Nineties, and now offered academic qualifications and leisure courses, he said.

The college's class of '97, while doubtless as hungry for knowledge as its forbears, as yet knows little of the dispute raging beneath the institution's William Morris-designed ceilings. "I don't know about the politics," music student Richard Leskin said. "I just come for the course. But I would be worried if the fees went up."