Protest at Destruction of Historic Student Records at Ruskin College, Oxford

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Ruskin Students, 1909: all their student records have been shredded (Photo: TUC library collection)

A petition signed by 7,500 people will be presented to governors at Ruskin College, Oxford this week, demanding that the destruction of historic student records should stop. Principal of Ruskin College, Audrey Mullender, recently ordered the shredding of thousands of student records from 1899 to recent years, an act which has been nationally condemned by students, staff, historians and archivists. No records have been scanned and only barest details digitised. Information on students’ backgrounds, progress and achievements has now gone. Only some from the 1950s remain. She has insisted, after the event, that these actions were legally justified despite repeated advice to the contrary from experienced archivists and internationally prestigious historians.

Last week Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archive, confirmed ‘it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purposes’ (1)

Ruskin College was set up in 1899 to provide education to working class men (and later women) with few or no qualifications, and became a model for labour colleges around the world. Files destroyed included thousands of files on individual students as well as those of the Ruskin Student Union. Student dissertations, often based on the unique opportunities for access to working lives that Ruskin students possessed, were also destroyed. Further unwanted material, including collections on the National Register of Archives, have also been dispersed to other archives.

Over 7,500 people (2) have signed the petition to halt immediately the destruction and to transfer the remaining student records to an institution committed to preserving the recorded experiences of working people. There has been no confirmation from Ruskin management that the remaining historic student records, mainly dating from the 1950s, will be saved, and no expression of regret.

In the petition, many of the signatories (including many high profile academics, the leader of Oxford City Council and hundreds of ex-students and staff) describe their anger at the destruction of the records. One writes: ‘My great uncle’s records will be part of this. He was originally a shoemaker – but after the opportunity of study at Ruskin College he became parliamentary secretary to Hugh Gaitskill. I do NOT want the memory of his academic record erased’. Another writes: ‘My father was lucky enough to gain a scholarship to Ruskin, from the NUM after WWII. His studies there are a large part of the reason why I am not now a miner… these records are of international importance.’

In order to save the remaining student records and to ensure that no further destruction takes place, ex-students, historians andarchivists will be lobbying next meeting of the Ruskin College governing executive on Friday 30 November. The petition will be presented and there will be a wreath laying in memory of the achievements of students whose lives have been eradicated from the historical record. All are welcome to attend the protest, delivery of the petition and the wreath laying ceremony at 11 am, Friday 30th November outside the Rookery entrance, Ruskin College, Dunstan Road, Old Headington, Oxford 0X3 9BZ.

The History Workshop Journal editors have also sent a letter to the governors of Ruskin College, stating their dismay at the destruction of the records and offering their help in assisting the college with assessing the historical value of remaining records, and in formulating a record retention policy, which the college does not yet have in place.

(1)  “We have been liaising recently with Ruskin College with regard to the management of their student records.  Our view is that it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purposes by reference to section 33 and Schedule 8 Part IV to the Data Protection Act 1998 and SI 2000 No 417 paragraph 9. It is critical that records are managed in line with the code of practice issued under section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act: Sections 10, 11 and 12 give clear guidelines on the selection of records for retention or destruction as well as on storage and preservation and security… The National Archives has no statutory powers in this space, because Ruskin College is not subject to the Public Records Act, but we do have a leadership role for the archives sector.  We believe that by issuing guidance and offering advice to holding institutions, and encouraging the cataloguing of collections, we can help to ensure that material with historical value survives and remains accessible.”

(2) Signatories include Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, M Lewycka, Sir Brian Harrison former editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dr Nick Mansfield former director of the People’s History Museum; Dr Eve Setch History publisher at Routledge; Professor Alison Light (Professor Emerita of Newcastle University and widow of Raphael Samuel); Professor Jonathan Rose author of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes; Stewart Maclennan, chair of the Scottish Labour History Society; MPs John McDonnell, Dave Anderson and Jeremy Corbyn; Harry Barnes, former Labour MP and former Ruskin student; John Hendy QC; Professor Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education; Professor Pat Thane, co-founder of History and Policy; Alice Kessler-Harris former President, Organization of American Historians; Dr Andrew Foster, Chair of the Public History Committee of the Historical Association; Professor Geoff Eley, Chair of the History Department at the University of Michigan; Dr. Serge Noiret, Chair of the International Federation for Public History, Italy; Professor Dorothy Sheridan, trustee, archivist and former director of the Mass Observation archive; Dr. Roger Fieldhouse, joint author of A History of Modern British Adult Education; Keith Bilton on behalf of the Social Work History Network; Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council; former governors including David Buckle and Brian Cohen; and hundreds and hundreds of former Ruskin students and staff.