Activism & Solidarity

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

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.


  1. King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
    the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the
    midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire,
    and the bush was not consumed.

    Chuck Berry  Roll over Beethoven
    I got the rockin’ pneumonia,

    I need a shot of rhythm and blues.

    I caught the rollin’ arthiritis

    Sittin’ down at a rhythm review.

    Roll Over Beethoven they’re rockin’ in two by two.

    Let them burn say I, as an ex Ruskin student.

  2. How very sad.  Ruskin is
    being pilloried for an action which was indeed ‘legally justified’ because
    there is no legal protection for private archives in the UK.  Whether it was historically justified is
    another question, but student records are usually destroyed – however
    interesting – because there is no money to pay either for the storage they need
    or for scanning them.


    Why not campaign against that lack of legal protection?  Or turn your attention to campaigning against
    the public spending cuts which are endangering archive services all over the
    country?  Many can no longer afford to
    take on new archives, which will thus be shredded.  I doubt there’s an archive in the country
    which hasn’t had to shred or turn away records for lack of resources.  Will you lay wreaths for those as well or is
    a sustained campaign like that too difficult? 
    Much easier to victimise one institution on one day.


    And no, I don’t have any connection with Ruskin

  3. Disgusting, however more widespread than people think, even in more ‘accountable’ organisations than Ruskin. Shocking such a thing could happen in Oxford!

  4. This is just another example of the apathy of most organisations to their organisational footprint. The loss to future historical research incalculable. As an aspiring archive professional I am more than aware of the magnitude of the preservation dilemma, however wholesale destruction instead of careful weeding and sampling in indefensible. A lot of the information lost through this destruction is not only irreplaceable but was also the very information that gave this resource value as a source. If Ruskin had planned this better I could have seen two paths not taken 1. pass the archive to a repository willing to take it on, 2. create a register where all information of possible future value could be inputted.

    We cannot keep blaming funding cuts for wanton destruction of our heritage. Canada itself has had its share of funding cuts yet it has not destroyed records merely placing the majority into deep storage until such time better conditions and times prevail. This may make access more difficult but at least the records and artefacts concerned actually survive!

    1. Presumably ‘create a register where all information of possible future value could be inputted’ means digitising the information.  But someone has to input the data and staff time costs money.  The digital data has to be stored – which costs money.  How has Canada managed to put so much into deep storage to preserve it for better times without spending money?  Archival quality storage is very expensive indeed.
      So I find this a little confusing as a response because it appears to
      suggest that in spite of having no money archives can be preserved – by
      spending money.

      1. It’s all about economies of scale. It costs less to store than it does to digitise (which would be the gold standard if possible), although I do take your point that it still costs money. Canada took the action it did exactly because it was a cheaper option. Also digitisation costs are one off expenses so once digitised material potentially reduces its ongoing costs to the organisation concerned. Nothing is free and that is not what I was saying, merely that greater planning could reduce oncosts and expenditures in the longer term while preserving heritage.

        ‘Creating a register’ does not always mean ‘digitisation’ however and a voluntary project could have been set up to extract from the records the information of value to research and input into a database. Not as romantic as holding the original I grant you, however this would be the cheapest and most effective way of preserving the information content of records where the ongoing preservation of original documents and files is not feasible.

        For example a register might include
        Date of Birth – All the above subject to Data Protection
        Experience prior to course
        Course and final grades
        Dissertation/thesis subject and, if possible, an abstract (if relevant, although as most of the interested parties in this instance seem to be interested in ancestors at the college perhaps just recording the title may have been sufficient) and award
        Any information known on where they went to post-graduation

        To fit into a database this would be then condensed to small fields (like in an Access database)

        If this was done all they would have needed to digitise would have been certificates awarded at graduation, if deemed of sufficient future research value.

        Of course to keep the originals, or digitise them would be better than what I have described, although what has been described above would be better than nothing. After all isn’t the main draw of archives the information contained within the record? Yes taking into account Palaeography and Diplomatic the preservation of pre-1900 documents such as deeds or legal charters (even some 20th-21st century examples) the originals are essential, however for formulaic records such as student records is such an insistence on originals necessary if the information content had of been preserved in a database before disposal of the records themselves?

        Finally, in working for cash-strapped archives I am aware of the difficulties, however to say they have ‘no money’ is erroneous, they do have budgets, allbeit tight. It is down to the judicious use of these tight budgets to ensure the best possible survival ratio of our documentary heritage. The above suggestion regarding the database is based on actual volunteer projects I am or have been involved in/aware of so is not beyond the means of even the most cash-poor archives. The mantra ‘volunteers, volunteers, volunteers’ is the buzz word to remember here.

        I know this is a long reply, I hope I have made things a little clearer.

        1.  Yes, I do understand all of this.  But volunteer projects also take up time.  I know from my own experience of managing volunteer projects that for every day of volunteer work I can expect to lose 2-10 days in preparation and on the days the volunteers are in further time is spent in solving ongoing problems. As was pointed out on the archives-nra list recently the vast majority of the colleges in Oxford have a single part time archivist working 1 or 2 days a week.  Supervising volunteers is not going to be popular when you have to do everything in 7-14 hours a week. 
          In the public sector in the UK it is very difficult to plan your money effectively because generally you are not allowed to carry money over from one year to the next and if you don’t spend it you get the budget reduced the following year.  I have spent 20 years pointing out to my (public sector) organisation that there are massive ongoing savings to be made by larger investment in certain volunteer or other projects, but unfortunately ongoing costs are of no interest to them.  The entire focus is on spending everything by 31st March and then starting again.  Long term planning is discouraged.

          1. I agree totally with your remarks about the discouragement of long term planning, and therein lies the problem which I referred to with my comment ‘this is just another example of the apathy of most organisations to their organisational footprint’. In regard to the destruction of the Ruskin papers surely wouldn’t it be more cost effective for Oxford colleges to collaborate and pool resources? I also saw that thread however, and if this sounds naive I apologise, but if each college can only fund 7-14 hours a week, times that by the 38 colleges that would make a pool of 266-538 hours or about 7-14 full time archivists. It could also allow for the employment of a dedicated Archive Volunteer Coordinator to free up the time of the remaining archivists to focus on the other pressing demands such as cataloguing backlogs, accessioning, enquiries, etc. I appreciate that each college is a separate entity but hasn’t partnership working been considered? For example when I visited the two Oxford colleges recently they had the same archivist working for both (dividing his time between the two). If this is possible on a small scale why not a larger co-operative spirit amongst all the colleges? In my experience in local authorities partnerships are often utilised to stretch tight budgets, by helping to spread the load, and, like youself, our budgets are reset each year. However through greater partnership might the efficiency of services be able to be improved? I know what I am querying would be a huge organisational challenge, although if the budget holders could be made to see the longer term vision might it not make more sense than loads of tiny, independent collegiate archives? This partnership philosophy could also be applied across the public sector, and in some counties partnership working is already being actively encouraged in this time of austerity as it spreads the load.

  5. LJ – the sad thing is that there was money and expertise to weed and archive these records – the Bishopsgate Library offered to archive everything for free and they have a lot of experience in this area (they have the membership records for the Co-operative Society for example). That offer is still open for the last boxes of files that remain from the 1950s.

  6. Can anyone please tell me how to find the ‘digitised’ records of past students at Ruskin College Oxford. My father was a student there round about 1966 to 1969 studying Political Economics & we are trying to find two of his fellow students. I thought perhaps if I could look through these records, we could re-unite three close college friends who lost touch.

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