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Forward, but with one eye on the past

In 1968, while other European students were manning the barricades in the boulevards of Paris, Jim Durcan was organising a canteen boycott as an undergraduate at Essex University.

"We had our fair share of demonstrat ions," admits the man who once led protests alongside David Triesman, now general secretary of the Association of University Teachers. But the political convictions of the new principal of Ruskin College, bastion of workers' education, formed long before that famous year of unrest.

Growing up in north Manchester, Jim Durcan was aware from an early age of the injustices of society. His father, a bricklayer whose work would come "at the whim of the employers", encouraged his sons to get the education he never had. Jim, a self-confessed "beneficiary of the 1944 Education Act", passed his 11-plus and went to the local grammar school.

A career in academia followed, as an economic and industrial relations lecturer and latterly programme director at Ashridge Management College. But his first job after graduating was working for Barbara Castle at the Department of Employment, researching the impact of a possible minimum wage, an issue echoed in present- day debates. "It's funny how life turns," he smiles.

Jim Durcan is keen to continue Ruskin's long association with trade unions and the education of their members (John Prescott among them). "Ruskin was founded to create opportunities for the disadvantaged and excluded. At that point, a lot of those people were represented through the growing trade union movement.

"Trade unions are not as numerous in terms of membership, but that remains true today. It's an enduring mission. Certainly, the level of disadvantage is not getting any less." His respect for the founding principles of this unique institution is tempered by a Nineties pragmatism.

"We have a role to play, working in partnership with the unions and the employers. Both groups have come together to see the value of learning in terms of raising people's self-confidence and belief, and giving them control of their own lives."

Ruskin lectures have long been a platform for radical ideas, another tradition he is looking to revitalise. "A lot of Ruskin's reputation is about contributing to the intellectual debate about what kind of society we are in and how to improve it. Ruskin hasn't been punching its weight there recently. "

Old Labour champion Tony Benn, a forthcoming speaker at the Oxford college, should restore its reputation for fighting talk. But the future constituency for Ruskin, says Jim Durcan, is in voluntary and community groups, giving people access to education via schemes such as the Ruskin Learning Project, a flexible, mostly free, programme of part-time supported study.

"The most magical thing we can give people is confidence. It's not just about succeeding as individuals, it's about helping their own communities."

Initiatives like this need to succeed if lifelong learning is to live up to its name. And while admitting to being disappointed by the scrapping of the Government's White Paper on lifelong learning, he can see a silver lining. "If there is a Green Paper, then it gives Ruskin and other residential colleges like it a chance to influence policy," he says.

He is completing a book about outsourcing, the industrial vogue for subcontracting areas of business and creating virtual companies. But he's a cautious advocate of its educational equivalent - franchising - given the bad experiences of some FE colleges.

"Quite a lot of colleges who have put their brand on something have come to regret it. I'm quite happy to look at partnerships, but I would be very concerned to ensure that what other people did was consistent with what Ruskin is about".

A few years ago, Jim Durcan wrote an article for the Observer, "Are you a good leader?" After honing his leadership skills in theory, in practice (and as coach of his sons' ice hockey team) has he got what it takes? "You have to want to take people with you. I don't believe leadership is about directions and orders. Great leaders - and I'm not claiming I am one - are very clear about what they want and about what other people want. Leadership is about talking to people, working with people and keeping it simple."

Another article, "The good old way", was about recruiting people aged over 50. They're more reliable, better with people, seen as wiser and necessarily have more experience, he argued.

As someone who has just passed the half-century mark himself, he would like to think he is living proof of just those qualities. But with an ageing population, he thinks it "astonishing" that the over-50s cannot qualify for student loans. "It's unfortunate and something I would be keen to see the Government change."

Ruskin College passes a landmark itself next year when it marks its centenary. There will be celebrations, exhibitions and of course, an appeal. The newly-installed principal, in the job he describes as "daunting" and which he wanted "more than any other", acknowledges the past but has his eyes set on the future.

"It's an opportunity to celebrate what has been achieved while beginning to look forward. Ruskin was founded to look forward, to imagine that there was a better world out there. And that's as strong a theme as it was 99 years ago."

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