Ruskin College, Oxford, was not the only adult residential college in the 1980s when I returned to education as a mature student. Scotland had Newbattle Abbey, Coleg Harlech existed in Wales and the Northern College operated in Yorkshire. Plater College, Oxford, was the much smaller Catholic version of Ruskin, and although Ruskin and Plater were never officially sister institutions, students from both colleges tended to like and respect each other since we were all from similar backgrounds.
The others tended to admit via an interview, but Ruskin insisted on a 2,000 word essay, proof of previous self-education and an interview. So given the choice available, and the ease of entry for most of them, what made me decide to go to Ruskin, the most difficult of them all to get into?
As a union activist and Labour Party member, Ruskin was in my blood, as it were. The other colleges may very well have been fine, I’m sure that they were, but they were not Ruskin, and I did not feel the attraction to them that I felt towards our College.
When I mentioned in the very early 1980s that I was thinking about going to university, people automatically assumed that I would use Ruskin as my gateway. Union officers were either Ruskin men themselves, or had attended at least one summer course at the College, so the notion that I would choose another College never entered their minds.
Most of my friends were either Labour or Communist people, and Ruskin was as much a part of that political culture as it was of the trades unions, so the drive was always directed towards Ruskin, rather than any other institution.
As I researched Ruskin prior to applying there, I was amazed to see that the College had been offered full membership of the University of Oxford in 1926, an offer that the College had declined, with thanks. Ruskin was established in 1899 as both a challenge to the University, but also as a complement to it, and that position could not have been maintained had the College entered fully into the University structure.
As it was, Ruskin students were granted matriculated status by the University, which meant that we could join University Societies. Ruskin has provided the Oxford Union Society with at least one president, which is more than can be said for most of the small Colleges in the University.
The College has provided more than one future political leader with a start to his career, but unfortunately by my time they tended to be Tory rather than Labour. One blonde-haired Balliol man spent so much time in Ruskin that the Bursar threatened to start charging him for his meals, but by then he had been adopted as an honorary Ruskinite with an ability to drink beer that matched our own, so we turned out to vote for him when he ran for the presidency of the Oxford Union. His name was Boris Johnson, in case you were wondering.
Ruskin and University interaction was also helped by the fact that the College had its own set of punts that were kept at the Folly Bridge boathouse. Free to use by students, there was something very Oxfordish about the sight of a former coalminer taking a gaggle of terribly upper-class University girls along the river, with him providing the muscle for the journey and them the hamper of snacks and wine.
So, even though Ruskin was the most difficult of the adult colleges to get into, it was still the one that I had to attend, if they would have me. The history that surrounds the College, its prestige, its location in the middle of Oxford, small but perfectly formed and surrounded by its University neighbours, meant that there was nowhere else that I seriously considered.
Kenneth Bell's writings are available from Amazon, and the paperback versions can also be ordered via your favourite bookshop. If you want signed copies please drop him a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at www.kenbell.info, when the mood takes him.