When the new principal of City Lit was revealed as a former director of the London Business School, a few eyebrows were raised. How would someone from an institution which charges over pound;50,000 to take an MBA adapt to the world of Spanish classes at pound;100 for a course?
As Government funding for adult education gets ever more scarce, the appointment of a former business school executive might seem to point to a more hard-nosed commercial future. But new principal Mark Malcomson, three weeks into the job, said City Lit had little to learn from business schools, with nearly 50 per cent of its income already coming from fees, and waiting lists for many courses.
He said: "This is a very, very well-run organisation. I must admit I'm constantly delighted by the level of commercial acumen here, around the wants and needs of the students. This is a good organisation that has got its fee income up and is in a good, strong financial position to be able to deal with the winds that will buffet the sector."
It was the college's diversity which attracted him to the job, he said. A former City Lit student - he took Spanish classes when he worked nearby 20 years ago and returned for a photography course just before starting the new job - he said he was struck by how the college brought together different parts of society, from nearby office workers to immigrants learning English.
"I don't want to be known as being brought in as the hard-faced commercial guy. If I want to be known as anything, it's the education guy; that's where my passion is," he said.
"There's a soft spot for City Lit that goes back to having been a student here. But also I think for me it is the mission of what this organisation does. Education for me is the ability to change people's lives.
"London Business School has the ability to do that for one sector. City Lit - I think in terms of its remit and place in social environment - has the ability to change people's lives far more."
It is apt that his introduction to adult education was through a Spanish course: it was holiday language courses for the middle class that were derided by former FE minister Bill Rammell as he pressured colleges to raise more income through fees. But Mr Malcomson warns of the danger of an overly utilitarian attitude to adult education.
"I think it's very dangerous to stereotype types of courses. People don't understand necessarily the motivation for why people go on types of courses," he said.
"A very good friend of mine was recovering from cancer. The chemotherapy had an effect on her fingers because it caused some sort of arthritis. She came and did a pottery course here. She never would have hit any of those social well- being markers that possibly Governments would want to set.
"When she heard I'd got the job here, she said: `That was the place where I started to regain my confidence.'"
While City Lit attracts a wealthy central London clientele, and uses their fees to subsidise poorer students, Mr Malcomson said its central location also provides him with his biggest challenge at the moment: lack of space.
The college has already outgrown its new premises, built just six years ago, and is searching for sites to lease for new classrooms.
But he said the college did not want to expand at the cost of forgetting its social mission. Reduced Government funding meant some groups could be left behind, although the college is building up bursaries to try to bridge the gap.
He said: "My big worry is around the working poor: people who don't necessarily meet the criteria around benefits, but whose disposable income is very small. I worry that too much emphasis is put on going commercial.
"The Government funding allows us to reach these people. There's a whole series of constituents we could disenfranchise and lock out of education."
1985: LLB, Edinburgh University
1986: Diploma of legal practice, Strathclyde University
1996: MA international relations, Kent University
1996: Managing director, DC Gardner Training
2000: President, New York Institute of Finance; president, FT Knowledge
2007: Director, London Business School.