Browsing through the Ruskin College prospectus for 2017-18 was a bit of a shock. The Oxford further education 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 to qualify, 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 Terms referring to self improvement are hopelessly outdated now; if this colourful brochure is anything to go by it’s emotional development and feeling safe which counts more than anything your intellect might be doing.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 downgraded 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 the 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 ahead of croquet 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 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 for men only, which could be opened only by a code.
I wondered who goes to Ruskin these days and if they resemble the notable alumni of the past, including Jack Ashley, John Prescott, ‘the Beast of Bolsover’ Dennis Skinner, and 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 lifestyle – playing Croquet at Dorney Wood country estate when he was deputy PM in 2006 – but the recent students photographed don’t look as if they would have the energy or inclination to wield anything heavier than chopsticks. Rather than tough, resilient young social/academic aspirants, the children of the old proletariat whose fathers spent their lives down mines or in the shipyards, 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 individuals 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, welfare-fed underclass seems to have the opposite effect.