Sunday, 23 February 2014

Ruskin: A Keyword for 115 Years


Yesterday Ruskin College celebrated its 115th birthday. I had hoped to post this item then but was at Ruskin teaching a BA labour/trade union studies group, which is a valid diversion from time spent with the blog.

That Ruskin has reached this ripe old age is some going for an institution largely renounced by its namesake John Ruskin, and which for over a decade after its creation as Ruskin Hall in 1899 had no formal, long-term home. The (in)famous student strike of 1908 which led to the formation of the Plebs' League, and thereafter the National Council of Labour Colleges, helped destabilise Ruskin's potential long-term future, but also helped cement a view that as Ruskin was borne to serve the radical educational needs of the burgeoning trade union and allied social movements, it could hardly not reflect the political. social and economic tumult and fervour at the turn of the 20th century.

Soon to admit thousands: The entry ticket to Ruskin's inaugural open
event at Oxford town hall on 22nd February 1899
Who could know what the next 115 years would hold? As Ruskin celebrates its birthday, it does so at a time of significant change and challenge in the context of neo-liberal dogma in the further and higher education sectors that the College straddles. As historical precedent demonstrates however, neither internal or external challenges are reliable barometers of the College's likely survival.

Ruskin's impact and legacy is reflected, I would argue, partly through the reissuing of Raymond Williams' seminal publication Keywords: a masterclass in understanding the ideological interrelationship between language and politics, and that in the battle for ideas working class women and men required Ruskin College as an institution to rebalance the power of elites.

Keywords as an expression of the power of language
The reissue of Keywords is supplemented by an accompanying exhibition at Tate Liverpool and which together provide a both a textual and visual means for new generations of activists to absorb the power and subtlety  of Williams' 1976 classic.

The first issue of the book contained 110 micro-analyses of the etymological, political and cultural trajectories of selected keywords: words without it is difficult to interpret dominant influences on our historical and contemporary lives. Thus the '76 first edition included such analyses of the words "bourgeois", "bureaucracy" and capitalism".

Without such interpretation (whether supplied by Williams or those who came before him), and accompanied of course with supplementary material and applied contextual relevance, legions of Ruskin's students would have been incapable of resuming or moving on to occupy vanguard positions in trade union, social and political movements internationally.

Andy Beckett's article in last weekend's Observer on the Williams re-issue helps re-focus the continuing relevance of Williams to the on-going work of Ruskin with current students:

"On the surface it was a history of language and ideas; underneath it was a history of England's economy, politics and society since the late middle ages. The rise of the middle class and the free market, the industrial revolution, the effects of democracy and leftwing dissent, the increasing Americanisation and atomisation of 20th-century England – all these themes recur in Williams's economical discussions of his chosen words."

Over time Ruskin College has (I would hope) become itself either a keyword, or perhaps a byword, for radical education supplied within the context of a distinct ethos and mission. I can confirm honestly that staff hold fierce to that mission of enabling  working class women and men to capture and apply their own understanding of primary keywords as part of the historic fight for social and economic justice.

Happy birthday Ruskin College.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Education Meets Neoliberalism and the Political Economy of Precarity (Middlesex University 14th Feb 2014)


Many thanks to Phoebe Moore and Elizabeth Cotton at Middlesex University for inviting me to speak on behalf of Ruskin College at an event this Friday which is being hosted by colleagues at Middlesex under the auspices of the British International Study Association's (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG).

Full details of the event are available at:

The event is described below:

These talks and workshops will critically examine the political economy of current changes in education policy in the United Kingdom and internationally as it has impacted and impacts marginalized groups as well as educators. Discussions will touch on the political economy of precarity and ask difficult questions about the flexilisation of the labour market and how it is reflected in every level of education. 
Participants will look at changes to education in all levels of education from secondary to University, adult, community and trade union education including the depoliticisation of pedagogies and curricula. Further challenges are brought about through introduction of new technologies including distance learning, online administration and new performance indicators, all of which we will argue can be appropriated for critical use.
The changing role of educators will be assessed as we look at critical pedagogies, the seen purpose for private involvement in education and the concept of ‘employability’, internships and possibilities for critique and intervention. In that light we invite educators, public intellectuals and trade unionists who look at the need for specific absences to be revisited. This also includes critical investigations around the understanding of the dangers of precarity for mental health, the costs of precarity for educators and students, political trade union education and the waning of working class and disability representation in recent education policy as well as the classroom.
Please  do register for the event and come along  and engage in what promises to be a highly thought-provoking event on the current state of education.
In Solidarity

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

RIP Stuart Hall (03-02-1932:10-02-14)


On the passing away of Stuart Hall many people will feel a great loss, not just from our intellectual life, but in the loss of a central component of how many of us grew to understand (and continue to comprehend of) the nature of power, culture and politics in the contexts of our lives and of our activism.

Hall's work has been recently re-energised for a new generation via The Stuart Hall Project, a testament to the legacy of Hall in British political and social life:

There is a really good interview with Hall by Sut Jhally from 2012 which captures the old geezer in fine contemplative flow, but which misses none of his capacity for fine insight and rigorous critique and analysis:

There is a great paragraph in today's obituary of Hall in The Guardian which accurately portrays my personal recollection of his impact on my understanding of what shapes society and of why we must all play an active part in shaping it for ourselves, both collectively and individually:

Hall was always among the first to identify key questions of the age, and routinely sceptical about easy answers. A spellbinding orator and a teacher of enormous influence, he never indulged in academic point-scoring. Hall's political imagination combined vitality and subtlety; in the field of ideas he was tough, ready to combat positions he believed to be politically dangerous. Yet he was unfailingly courteous, generous towards students, activists, artists and visitors from across the globe, many of whom came to love him. Hall won accolades from universities worldwide, despite never thinking of himself as a scholar. Universities offered him a base from which he could teach – a source of great pleasure for him – and collaborate with others in public debate (

In Solidarity and Memory


Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Ruskin Teach-in (06-02-14)

In solidarity with sister and fellow trade unionists out on strike today across the country's FE and HE sector academic staff staff at Ruskin are hosting a teach-in event in collaboration with the student's union. The teach-in programme is: Agenda 10:00 Welcome and Opening Statement from UCU (Des McDermott) 10:10 – 10:30 History and Austerity (John Walker) 10:30 10:50 Women and Cuts (Tracey Walsh) 10:50 – 11:10 Social Work and Austerity (Des M) 11:10 – 11:30 The Economics of Austerity (Peter Dwyer) 11:30 - 11:50 Ruskin College Students Union 11:50 - 12:10 Austerity and the TUC Response (Mark Everden) Ruskin students and staff are sending a message of solidarity to our colleagues engaged in strike action across the UK in our joint fair for fair pay. After today's event I'll return to this post and add pictures from today's action. Pics from the event are now posted on my facebook page In Solidarity Ian

Monday, 3 February 2014

Pay and the Presence of Trade Unionism


Two shocking new reports from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) confirm formally an inconvenient truth for the UK Coalition, in that they are presiding over a 50-year low in the real-terms value of wages.

Whilst this long-term trend owes as much to the economic legacy of New Labour, the continuity of labour market and employment rights deregulation under the Coalition has firmly pushed down the value of wages. Even the Government's own Office for Budget responsibility (OBR) admits that real-terms increases in the buying power of take home pay will not start to improve until 2018-19, and that in the context of significant increases in the overall costs of living the shrinking of wages is causing far too many UK workers considerable anxiety.

You can get a link to the three reports via this Guardian article:

For labour and trade union studies students there is an appreciation of the strong, historical correlation between the overall presence and strength of trade unions in an economy and the level and buying power of wages.

A contemporary appreciation of this historical phenomena can be seen in the current volatile debate in the US around the call to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. The US-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI) provide a detailed critical appreciation of the argument for the increase and of its benefits to the national economy.

An older article from the EPI locates the historical role of US trade unions in the vanguard for decent pay: In the US, as with the bulk of the European Union (EU) the demise of collective bargaining has witnessed a significant dip not only in the presence and relative strength of trade unions, but correspondingly a demise in the qualitative status of terms and conditions of employment.

A December report of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Working Lives (EUROFOUND) 'Quality of employment conditions and employment relations in Europe' helps to unpick the fast-changing European picture and concludes that the dominant, contemporary position of workers is one of a polarised labour force with significant numbers of women and young workers clustered at the wrong end in poorly paid, insecure work:

Of course it is not all doom and gloom, not least as last years' UK analysis of trade union membership data showed a promising growth of density:

As we start the new year though it's quite clear that there is even greater pressure on trade unions (particularly, although not exclusively) in the UK to secure for members improvements in wages. And so coverage of this particular aspect of the work of trade unions will feature again this year.

In Solidarity