Prime Minister James Callaghan lays a stone in 1976 for a new accommodation block at Ruskin College, surrounded by students protesting against cuts to public expenditure.

The alma mater of John Prescott once offered workers an Oxford degree – and a future. Now its vision has changed

Ian Tugwell left school at 14 and was making false teeth as a dental technician in 1958 when he arrived, aged 27, at Ruskin College, then closely associated with Oxford University, which validated its qualifications and provided some teaching.

“Ruskin opened up a whole new world for me. It changed my life. I went on to work as a social worker, helping to get people back into work through the employment rehabilitation service, and then as a technical adviser for the International Labour Organisation. I visited 40 different countries,” he says.

For its 120th anniversary, Ruskin has delved into its history to find 120 stories of its alumni, many of whom went on to be prominent figures in politics or trade unions, or leaders for social change. Ruskin Hall, as it was then called, was founded by two American postgraduate students who wanted, through education, to turn the increasingly vocal working class radicals from “windbags” into “sandbags”. “We shall take men,” said founder Walter Vrooman, “who have merely been condemning our institutions and will teach them how, instead, to transform them.”

Ruskin brought working people from all over the country and abroad to the heart of the pomp and the privilege of Oxford, and the ties were not broken until the 1990s. Most of the students were sponsored by their trade unions and not afraid to down pens and take to the picket line, in support of miners, women’s rights or against apartheid.

“Ruskin’s influence on my life was massive,” says another former student, Albert Mills, now a professor in management at St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, Canada. “In 1967 I was an unskilled London Transport tube guard. By 1969, I had a diploma from Oxford University, with the ability to get into almost any university in the UK. I had a huge pride in being a graduate from Ruskin College but I couldn’t resist mentioning I had an Oxford University qualification.”

Alumni include the former deputy prime minister, John Prescott; the long-serving Labour leftwing backbencher Dennis Skinner; Baroness “Betty” Lockwood, the first chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission; and the late Judy Fryd, who founded Mencap.

However, some alumni believe Ruskin – now a small, independent college of further education – has lost sight of its mission to educate adults who have missed out at school and to contribute to social change.

There was an outcry two years ago when the college discontinued its honours degree in international labour and trade union studies and made staff redundant. Academics from around the world joined the protest, signing a letter to the Guardian in July 2017.Advertisement

One signatory, Richard Tudway, the principal of the Centre for International Economics, says Ruskin in its earlier life was an outstanding institution with a purpose to deepen the understanding of its policy priorities in sustaining economic and social change.

“It did so by attracting talent that would otherwise have been ignored by the educational system of the day. The trade unions played a key role in that process. Ruskin alumni in large measure contributed to the early impetus of reform. But, as with so much else, Thatcherism turned the clock back.”

Now, he says, the trade union movement has been weakened and changing society is no longer its priority. “Striving to change society in fundamental ways has given way to fighting to secure a better deal for its shrunken membership in the face of massive corporate power and greed.”

Paul Di Felice, Ruskin’s principal, insists the close links with trade unions remain through the training provided for officials and new apprenticeships. “We have around 3,000 people from the trade unions doing activist training either off-site or residential,” he says.

The international labour honours degree, a four-year distance-learning qualification, was discontinued because of a steep drop in numbers, he adds. “The trade unions were sponsoring fewer and fewer people to do it and one year we had no applicants.”

Nowadays, 59% of students are female, but in its early days women were a tiny minority. Those who made it to Ruskin often made their mark. June Rose Nala, for example, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, attended Ruskin in the 1980s and went on to found the Workers’ College in Durban. Her daughter, Tanagra Nala Hartley, is now at Ruskin studying for an MA in global labour and social change.

Ruskin students were often found on the picket lines during the 1972 miners’ strike and they asked female students to make them sandwiches. Maureen Eads, who studied history between 1971 and 1973, recalls: “On your bike, we said. There were only five or six of us and we said we will make sandwiches but we’re going on the picket line too.”

Ashok Patel, Ruskin’s current finance director, says: “The college has recovered its financial position from the inadequate financial health rating 12 months ago to satisfactory and we are hopefully going to achieve a ‘good’ this year.” The rise in tuition fees hit the college’s mature applications. “Over five years we suffered cuts in further education funding. We had to make some difficult decisions about programmes that had fallen out of fashion and had few applicants.”

Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, says that over the last 120 years Ruskin has been “a crucible for working class intellectualism and action. Speak to former Ruskin students and the same phrase crops up – ‘it changed my life’. But the point is that they changed other people’s lives too,” she says.

•This article was amended on 5 March 2019 to correct the job title of Albert Mills.