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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy