Tuesday 13 March 2018

My Ruskin College, Oxford, Posts

Late last year I was invited to write a series of posts for the Ruskin College, Oxford, website. I submitted five and the college has published the first four, with the spiked fifth post appearing here at my own blog.

To be honest, I don't blame the college for spiking the final post, since it is a depressing read as you will see in a moment. If you are trying to convince people that higher education is the road to a brighter tomorrow, then the stories of old lags like me who bought into that myth in the 1980s doesn't really help you to talk people into forking out good money to go to Oxford. At least in my day, the state paid us to study, rather than the other way around.

Here is the fifth post:

Life for a Ruskin Man After University

More than one person told me before I went to Ruskin in 1983 that if I could get a diploma from the college I would be guaranteed a job in the Labour Movement. I was also told that if I did an honours degree after Ruskin I would have my pick of jobs. Given that most union officers, researchers and an awful lot of Labour MPs were Ruskin men in those days that struck me at the time as sensible bits of advice to follow.

Unfortunately, Thatcherism turned out to be more than a passing fancy, with the result that many of us ended up with a degree and no jobs at all at the end of our student lives, so let me look back at what happened to my generation.

A few former Ruskinites ended up doing very well for themselves indeed. I can think of one man who is now a happy professor with the Open University and living in Italy. Another is a well-fed barrister and a third is a City of London solicitor who works for a major firm.

What those people had in common was that they all tended to be at the lower end of the Ruskin age-range. They also tended to be from vaguely middle-class backgrounds and something had prevented them from going to university in their late teen years, so they went to Ruskin in their very early twenties. In other words, by and large, they were people who already had the cultural norms that allowed them to fit into upper-middle-class employment patterns, coupled with a determination to do exactly that.

At the other end of the scale were people who were well into middle age when they arrived at Ruskin. Many were industrial workers who had given a lifetime to their unions and were being rewarded with a word in the right ear and a scholarship to Ruskin. They had been told that a union job or seat in the Commons would be theirs, but those promises turned out to be unfulfilled when the great industrial unions vanished along with their industries.

Sadly, after university, many of those people spent the remaining decade or so of their working lives signing on the dole until their state pensions kicked in.

However, the bulk of the eighty or so people who took their diplomas in the mid-1980s falling between those two stools, with my experience as a graduate in his early thirties being fairly typical.
After graduating in 1988 I went back to doing the last job that I had held before it all began in 1983 which involved throwing drunks out of nightclubs. A Ruskin friend of mine who had stayed at Oxford to do a degree had then gone on to take a Certificate in Further Education which qualified him to teach in the Further Education sector so at his recommendation I did the same thing at the same London college that had taken him.

My first job interview with my newly printed certificate turned out to be at a college where all the tutors were on strike, so the job that was being advertised actually belonged to someone who was stood on the picket line that was being mounted outside the main entrance. Instead of going in I stood outside with the strikers, drinking hot, sweet tea, smoking cigarettes and moaning about life in Britain.

My next interview was with a woman who told me that Ruskin was a “workerist institution,” and she doubted that I would be able to fully empathise with the “multicultural leaner experience.” It was at that point that I rather spoiled her nonsense by bursting out into mocking, raucous laughter, and then getting up and going to the nearest pub.

Many Ruskin people had already decided to go abroad. One went to Hungary just as the Cold War ended and became an English teacher.  Another, a former projectionist like me, married a South African Zulu who was also at Ruskin, and they moved to that country as soon as they could.

I ended up in Mexico, where I learned Spanish and did a variety of things both academic and otherwise. I fathered three Anglo-Mexican sons and learned to understand that poverty is far better in a warm climate than a cold one.

Had I not gone to Ruskin all those years ago I am sure that I would have spent my life in Manchester and unemployed for most of it. As it was, Ruskin gave me the skills that I have used to write my books, especially the political pamphlets that helped in some tiny way to get Britain out of the European Union. It acted as a gateway to the University of Manchester and from there to Garnett College, London. Six fat years with full grants and age addition supplements, coupled with the ability to sign on during the vacations, amounted in income terms to far more than I could have ever hope to earn as a casual, short-term worker, interspersed with long periods on the social, which was the life most working people were reduced to in those days.

That said, it did not lead to the life that I had been told would be mine before I went to Ruskin in the first place.

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