a group of students
Ruskin students striking in 1909 (picture from TUC archive)

As a former Ruskin student I have been following the unfolding story of the destruction of the student records at Ruskin with horror. I first became aware of this issue more than three months ago, when an Alumni newsletter arrived with a disturbing request for ex-students to get in touch if they wanted their student file sent to them before it was destroyed. I emailed the Principal with a request for my file at the beginning of July, followed by the following:

 “I am rather concerned that the move is going to result in a lot of records getting destroyed that may be of interest to historians in the future; have you been in touch with any archives that might be interested in holding the material? Institutions that immediately spring to mind are the County record office, the Oxford Museum, the Bishopsgate Institute, the Bodleian; I can help ask around if you like.”

 The reply was as follows:

 “We should not even hold these records under data protection law and we most certainly cannot use them or pass them on. We will have a go at finding your own file. It may take a while.”

 A while indeed – in fact nothing has arrived in all these months and I can only assume it was destroyed with all the other student records, which went back to the earliest days of the college. Some of these files will have been extremely detailed; several years ago John Prescott was shown his file and told the Oxford Mail: “I was amazed how detailed they were. Every little scrap had been retained, from bills to private reports on my progress. I hadn’t known how hard Ruskin had worked on my behalf to get me there.”

Not everything has gone. It is still unclear exactly what information was ‘digitised’ before the student records were destroyed; I imagine it would have been little beyond names, contact details and qualifications received. Today it emerged that some student files from the 1950s do survive; how these made it is unclear, but the Principal confirmed today: “We still have the files from the 1950s yet to do and part of the reason we are taking current advice from lawyers, data protection experts, historians and archivists, is to decide what to do with those.”

Now this begs the question why such advice wasn’t sought in the first place. But there has finally been some pause for thought, presumably as a result of the petition, which now has over 4,000 signatures, requesting simply: ‘Stop further archive destruction at Ruskin College, Oxford’ – and the firestorm of emails and letters sent to members of the governing body.

So here we have a small, silver lining to what is a very black cloud. Some – but relatively few – student records survive – at least for now, and they are by no means safe. Some – but relatively little – information from the destroyed folders has been recorded. Perhaps only historians can feel the terrible sense of loss of all the details and information about generations of students that has gone. But at Ruskin I was taught that all of us, in some way, are historians; I find it hard to believe that the staff involved in that decision didn’t feel some unease and it is good to know that some, at least, tried to preserve what they could.

The key issue here is the interpretation of the Data Protection Act which covers student and staff records at pretty much every organisation in the UK. In the view of, amongst others, the Society for the Study of Labour History Archive and Resources Committee, the Act clearly allows for retention of personal data for historical research, and a letter sent to the Guardian today states:

 “The decision by Ruskin College, Oxford, to destroy its student records has caused great disquiet amongst academics and information professionals alike.  We are labour history archivists and librarians writing as the Society for the Study of Labour History Archive and Resources Committee to express our concern about a couple of issues in particular. The Data Protection Act has been used as justification for the destruction of these records.  Yet the Act specifically allows under Section 33 for the retention of personal data for historical research and, given the unique and renowned history of the College, we are stunned by the fact that consideration was not sufficiently given to the maintenance of these records.

It has also been claimed that student records are not part of the College’s archive, the implication being that these data are not worthy of permanent preservation.  On the contrary, student records are a fundamental part of any educational institution’s archive and this incident highlights the importance of organisations and institutions having access to professional expertise in the management of their records and archives.

 We therefore strongly urge Ruskin College to suspend destruction of its remaining student or other records, pending a thorough professional assessment of their historical value. Otherwise, the College risks destroying an irreplaceable part of its own heritage and of the wider working class and labour movement.”

 The Data Protection Act does allow for fair and legitimate retention of personal information, and the potential historical significance of these records surely makes retention of these details legitimate under section 33, as long as the records are not publicly accessible for a reasonable length of time – for example school records are generally not made available to researchers for 100 years, which could quite easily be monitored by a library or archive service. As an ex-student, I would consider this preservation of my personal records as fair and I very much doubt anyone else would object.

Of course the quickest and easiest option would be to carry on as before and destroy the lot; but there is an important principle at stake. At this point we need the Principal and the governing board of Ruskin to avoid the easy option, and for the sake of the historic record, make an entirely legitimate stand. It won’t be easy, in most part because it will involve conceding that the earlier decision to destroy the records was rather too hastily considered. But in doing the right thing the college will find no shortage of well-qualified volunteers to help with the task, or goodwill from ex-students like me who are proud to have been part of the College’s extraordinary legacy.

Toby Butler, 19th October 2012

For the latest information and a link to a detailed list of what has happened to different parts of Ruskin’s archive/records see Hilda Kean’s blog entry, When is an archive not an archive?

To encourage Ruskin’s governing body to preserve what is left of the student records archive add you name to the petition.

LATEST NEWS: There is a very useful blog including links to best practice by Sarah Wickham, an archivist at the University of Huddersfield who has also put up a page of links to major discussions on this and directly addresses the legal question.

This story was picked up by the Guardian newspaper in an editorial on the 28th October, and several letters have been printed there.

Update, 26th November

Latest archivist to express an opinion on this is Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission (National Archive). He states:

“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.”

I think that is pretty clear.

In order to save the remaining student records and to ensure that no further destruction takes place, ex-students, historians and archivists will be lobbying next meeting of the Ruskin College governing executive on Friday 30 November. The petition – which now has 7,500 signatures – 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. Everyone welcome 10.30 am, Friday 30th November outside the Rookery entrance, Ruskin College, the new Headington site, Dunstan Road, 0X3 9BZ.

In the petition, many of the signatories (including playwright Alan Bennett, 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.’

Petition signatories include:

*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 (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; Dorothy Sheridan, former archivist 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.

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