He would much rather talk about the radical historian EP Thompson, 1940s and 1950s working-class education and its relevance to universities today, as well as his mesmerising new film work which opens to the public tomorrow at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in Yorkshire.

But of course Luke Fowler, Glasgow artist and film maker, is the latest Scot to be short-listed for the Turner Prize, so the annual arts gong has to be mentioned. If Fowler – brought up in, and now based in, Glasgow but a graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art school in Dundee – wins, he will the fourth Scottish artist in a row to take the contemporary art prize, following Susan Philippz, Richard Wright, and Martin Boyce. Fowler, also a musician, has already won the Derek Jarman Award and had a major show at the Serpentine Gallery in London two years ago. So what was his reaction when he heard he had been short-listed for his film concerning the life and work of the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing at Edinburgh's Inverleith House?

"It was shocking and obviously a bit flattering, but also a little: 'Really? I'm really young, how many people turned this down before you asked me?'" he says. One can sense an ambivalence about the competitive nature of the prize, and a wariness over the level of debate that swirls around the prize. "You're happy because you make work that you want people to see," he says, carefully.

We move swiftly on, over a coffee in Glasgow's west end, to The Poor Stockinger, The Luddite Cropper And The Deluded Followers of Joanna Soutcott, his new work inspired by Edward Palmer Thompson, the Marxist historian and writer of 1963's seminal The Making of the English Working Class. In 1946, at the age of 24, he was employed by Leeds University's extra-mural department and the Workers Education Association (WEA) to teach literature and social history in the industrial towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Fowler, born in 1978, is animated not only talking about Thompson's work (about which he is articulate and passionate), but Creative Scotland (about which he is less than impressed) and the present and future of higher education (about which he is also less than enamoured). His new hour-long film was made with key collaborations from artist Cerith Wyn Evans, who reads extracts from Thompson's class reports, New York-based filmmaker Peter Hutton, the Yorkshire-born writer and filmmaker George Clark and musicians Richard Youngs and Ben Vida.

It is a carefully-paced rumination on not only Thompson's night classes, but on the sense of place in these northern towns, the weight of industrial history, and the dialogues and theoretical contests within higher education that continue to this day. Wyn Evan's lugubrious reading of Thompson's sometimes dour, sometimes amusing reports dominates the film: exact, sometimes distracted, sometimes dutifully monotonous.

The work begins and ends with film of Thompson himself, passionately discussing the work of another radical Englishman, William Blake. The film was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society, researched two years ago, mainly in the library in Leeds University, and made in the last year. Although it is too clever, lovingly made and self-controlled to fetishise the working class of yesteryear and compare it with the atomised social stratas of contemporary society, it is hard to watch the film and not feel a little nostalgia for the sensibilities of the time, when working men and women in the then-thriving mining or textile industries would sign up for these arduous, three-year courses on social history from some of the nation's leading historians.

For Fowler, making the film was also about learning. "I grew up in an academic background, so Raymond Williams and EP Thompson were very familiar names, but I never went to university so I never really studied them officially. I think all my films are ways of generating experience and a relationship to a text or an author that's outwith officially studying someone, or being told to study someone," he says. "So when I came across this story that Thompson taught in these mining and textile communities in West Yorkshire, I thought, yes maybe this is something I can explore further. I discovered Thompson's class reports and how fascinating they are."

Fowler's work blurs and obscures boundaries: it is a work of art, but art that resembles a documentary film, albeit one that does not tell a conventionally straight story. Or it could be a documentary that is distinguished by its formal resemblance to a work of film art. His new work, like his old, brings together new and archive footage. Time and place, voices and sounds, collide, interact, coalesce and dissolve. Television and radio footage, photos and documents from Leeds University, WEA and private archives live alongside new footage recorded at the locations of the classes. Time, decay and the tides of economics and politics have imprinted themselves on these world-weary locations, but Fowler avoids heavy-handed clichés in his images: there are not too many redundant Victorian chimneys, dilapidated libraries or merchant warehouses converted into glitzy flats.

"Working-class culture still exists in the same way that middle-class culture still exists," he says. "Just because there's no manual industry doesn't mean there's no working-class culture. It's just not as official, you can't look for it in official places."

FOWLER adds: "Most working-class people from Wakefield today will struggle to see how a seemingly marginal academic debate in the 1940s is relevant to their life now, but I see it as relevant because of what is happening to education now, because education has been turned into a business, and I still long for a time when education isn't seen as that, isn't coralled by free market ideology."

Wyn Evans's voice-over – occasionally very funny, when he is distracted by noises-off in his own flat – provides a perhaps necessary distance from Thompson and his fairly dry if penetrating reports. Fowler says: "I wanted to disavow the illusion that this is some authoritarian text, this is quite clearly an artist's impression, an artist's opinion of the text." Evans was, apparently, not only thrown by Thompson's syntax but by noises made by builders nearby. Fowler adds: "There is always the problem: how do you make something out of quite an academic struggle – how do you bring life to it? It could quite easily have fallen into a struggle for authenticity, me trying to find a working-class Yorkshire perspective on it, doing vox-pops or something, there are so many traps I could have fallen into."

For Thompson it was a very different experience from working at universities where, Fowler says, students were empty vessels that could be filled up. In the WEA, Thompson was teaching working men and women who had life experiences and from them could challenge what was being said to them.

Fowler adds: "It's tragic when you look at the rhetoric of universities and the WEA and now . . . the values that these people had, the idealism, and how that has been reversed. The idea that you could have education for free, that was non-utilitarian, non-vocational, and not an individualistic view, it was about raising the whole standards of the class. They were against social mobility, against the idea of the 'ladder', and against the idea of teaching to make the workforce more efficient or to increase productivity."

Fowler's work, however much he wished to avoid cliché, can be seen as an hour-long elegy. Not only to lost times, a lost system and lost time, but also, perhaps sadly, a lost argument.

Luke Fowler's new work is at the Hepworth Wakefield from tomorrow to October 14.