The mission of the college has always been to provide educational opportunities to adults who are excluded and disadvantaged, and to transform the individuals concerned along with the communities, groups and societies from which they come, the only change having been to personalise the language (away from ‘the excluded’, who do not sound like people) in line with growing equalities awareness. The mission statement is twofold:
The first aim, that of giving individuals a second chance in education, continues to be achieved by admitting those with few or no formal qualifications to courses of study that can result in, or lead on to, university-level qualifications.
The second aim, the transformational element of the mission, is evidenced by the fact that the most frequent thing former students say about Ruskin is that it changed their lives. Students, whether or not they themselves are resident, benefit from studying in a setting with a strong sense of academic community and from the intensive tutorial teaching that Ruskin offers. The college is also transformational because it sees education as a vehicle for progressive social change.
Ruskin tends towards a curriculum that has high social relevance, students who want to make a difference in the world, and forms of academic scholarship and research that are engaged and applied.
Ruskin’s mission is also pursued by means of strong historical links, nationally and internationally, with the labour and trade union movement, other social movements and activism around social issues (e.g., anti-ageism), as well as with local communities, for example through the Social Work and Youth and Community Work programmes.
Ruskin College was established in 1899 specifically to provide educational opportunities for working class men, who were denied access to university. It was deliberately placed in Oxford, the city in which its young American founders, Charles A. Beard and Walter Vrooman, had studied, because the city symbolised the educational privilege and standards to which ordinary people could never previously have aspired. It was Walter Vrooman's then wife, Amne (later Amne Grafflin), who financially supported the foundation of the college.
Ruskin College became, in turn, a symbol of workers'education. It served as a model for labour colleges around the world, and Gandhi made a point of visiting during a brief stay in Oxford in 1931 because he had been so inspired by the writings of John Ruskin on workers’ education, just as the college founders had been.
In 1908, a group of Ruskin students, dissatisfied with its education policy which they viewed as too pro-establishment and imbued with elements of "social control", formed the Plebs' League. The students revolt was supported by the Principal, Dennis Hird, and following his dismissal the students took strike action, refusing to attend lectures.
A £17m redevelopment programme of the college’s Old Headington site was completed in 2012, and the headquarters of the college has moved there. The redeveloped site has a new academic building incorporating an expanded library, named the Callaghan Library in honour of former Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, who made a major education speech at Ruskin in 1976. The MacColl/Seeger archive has its own dedicated room within the new library. All other buildings on the site have been refurbished, the grounds have been improved and the walled garden, with its listed 'crinkle crankle wall' has been brought back into use by local volunteers. A cafeteria is open to the public.
Student enrolments at Ruskin in 2005–2006 reached their highest ever number in the college’s history. Enrolments on long courses were 294 in total across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Short course enrolments reached 5,187 in total, including trade union courses, residential short courses and the largest ever Summer School.
In 2005–06, there were 78 full-time equivalent academic staff of whom 26 were teaching staff and 13 teaching support services staff. Progression rates are excellent, with 87% of students on undergraduate-level Humanities courses at Ruskin having come via short courses there, and a majority of students on long courses going on to degree-level study, both at Ruskin and elsewhere. Ruskin students go on to jobs in professional, trade union and political settings, amongst others.
The college’s work in higher education constitutes:
An Access to Higher Education Diploma (New for 2014)
A two-year Foundation Degree in Writing for Performance
One year full-time or two-year part-time Certificates of Higher Education courses in English Studies: Creative Writing and Critical Practice; History; Law; Social Enterprise (leading to a Business degree) and Social and Political Studies; and a part-time (weekend block residential) Certificate of Higher Education in International Labour and Trade Union Studies (part-time)
Three-year full-time or six-year part-time BA (Hons) degrees in English Studies: Creative Writing and Critical Practice; History with Social Sciences; Social and Political Studies; Social Work; and Youth and Community Work
Six-year part-time, block residential BA (Hons) degree in International Labour and Trade Union Studies
MA degrees in International Labour and Trade Union Studies, Women’s Studies, and Public History
The Ruskin Fellowship is an alumni association for ex-Ruskin College students and staff. Independent of but associated with the college, the Fellowship aims to support the work and ethos of the college in offering university-level education to disadvantaged adults in Britain. There is also a post graduate programme and an international section involving: International Labour and Trade Union Studies; Webb and Chevening Scholars.