Feel free to use the 'F' word

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Feminism - and socialism - are watchwords for the new principal of Ruskin college, writes Simon Midgley

Audrey Mullender, principal designate of Ruskin college, Oxford, doesn't mince her words. She is, she says, a socialist-feminist.

"I am not frightened of the 'S' word," says the woman who is currently professor of social work at Warwick university. "And I'm not frightened of the 'F' word. I try to live by both those principles.

"The most fashionable statement now is, 'I am not a feminist butI' and the sentence is then completed with a formulation which actually does describe a feminist viewpoint."

According to the professor, it is not cool to describe yourself as a feminist in contemporary Britain. It conjures up images of women in dungarees and big boots who live apart from men. Moreover, in a postmodernist age many of the grand theories and explanatory models have fallen out of favour.

But she believes there is still a long way to go before women get the same opportunities as men in this society.

"We are talking the talk, but we haven't yet walked the walk," she says.

"One of the postcards in my office says, 'I will be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy.'

"Violence against women in society is absolutely endemic. One in three women tells objective researchers of having suffered violence worse than being pushed, grabbed or shaken. It is in every ethnic and class group.

"It is important to face the fact that we are not as civilised and sophisticated as we like to think."

Professor Mullender, whose research interests include issues of domestic safety, is a formidable champion of equal opportunities.

The daughter of an oil-refinery worker from Essex, she attended a girls'

grammar school in Grays before reading French at Sheffield university, followed by an MAin social work at Nottingham university.

"I am one of these mysterious people who came from social class 5 and made it - and that was entirely because of free education," she says.

When she becomes principal of Ruskin college in April, she may well discover that she has found her natural home. The college was founded 104 years ago to provide working-class people with a university-standard education.

Today, Ruskin college offers a second chance to adults who missed out on education in their early lives. One of its most famous alumni is the deputy prime minister, John Prescott.

Ruskin is unusual for being a residential college that offers further and higher education in history, social sciences, social work and various other areas of the humanities. Some 200 students are enrolled on long-term courses, and about 3,000 on part-time short courses, on two college sites.

Last year the college became embroiled in controversy when former principal Jim Durcan tried to consolidate its activities and buildings on a new site.

But the move was opposed by Ruskin's teachers, students and the college's alumni association.

Complaints included a lack of consultation, underselling college assets and dealing with a development company that did not recognise trade unions. The deal collapsed in March last year, and in May Mr Durcan resigned. Since then Lorna Duffin, dean of Ruskin, has been acting principal.

Professor Mullender stumbled on the job almost by accident. Someone connected with the college asked if she could suggest any able women who might be encouraged to apply for the post. On seeing the job description, Audrey Mullender felt she was reading about herself.

She says: "I thought, 'I could do that job' - and that it would be a tremendous challenge and very appropriate in terms of principles and values."

Britain, she says, can't afford to waste the talent of the mature people who failed to make the most of their potential early in life. But at a time when there are more second-chance opportunities for mature students than ever, Ruskin should be asking how it can best provide new opportunities for learning in the 21st century.

"I can't remember a time when education has been higher on the public agenda," she says. "And I want to be a part of asking and answering the question of what role Ruskin should play.

"Everybody knows somebody who has studied at Ruskin - a lot of its reputation is by word of mouth. In the main, people speak very highly of the place."

Professor Mullender will not be drawn on her precise plans for the college."The college does face major challenges," she says. "I know I'm coming in at a time that is not particularly easy. I want to work with others to find the best way for Ruskin to continue to do what it has done brilliantly for the past 104 years."

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