Museums, Archives & Heritage

Come on Ruskin: Do the Right Thing

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.”

Courtesy TUC Archives

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.

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 article 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.


  1. Ruskin College have released the legal advice they received, which seems to only apply to the narrower question of whether the Bishopsgate Library might administer the records. The advice is here, under the aptly titled link

    Today I sent this legal guidance to the National Archives and got this helpful response from the Data Protection Officer there:

    Dear Toby
    Your email has been referred to me as data protection officer at The National Archives. You might be interested in looking at the code of practice for archivists and records managers under section 51(4) of the Data Protection Act 1998, which you will find on our website here – I see from the email chain below that you are already aware of section 33 of the Act but might like to know that there is a similar provision for sensitive personal data at SI 2000 No. 417 paragraph 9. Note also that Schedule 8 Part IV to the Act provides some exemptions from the full force of the Act for personal data being kept for historical research purposes.
    Yours sincerely

    Susan Healy
    Information Policy Consultant and Data Protection Officer

    And in the code of practice she refers to I found the following paragraphs, which seem particularly relevant to the issue:

    4.3.2 There is a danger that over-cautious interpretation of the Act may lead to the weeding, anonymising or destruction of files containing personal data that would otherwise be passed to the archives repository. An archivist’s ability within the Act permanently to retain personal and sensitive personal data for the purposes of research (see 4.2.1) should therefore be made clear to potential depositors. The legislation contains the necessary safeguards for depositors.

    4.3.3 When considering the permanent preservation of sensitive personal data for the purposes of research, archivists should give serious consideration to how far this will be in “the substantial public interest”. This will mean weighing up whether society as a whole, and the research community in particular, will benefit from preservation of the data for research purposes. All appraisal decisions should be documented as a matter of good professional practice.

    Data Protection Code of Practice August 2007:30

  2. A Response from Audrey Mullender to advice given by the Society for the Study of Labour History Archives and Resources Committee (above) and the Data Protection Officer at the National Archives (below). This can be viewed at the Ruskin College Facebook page.”Section 33 of the DPA only applies where data are already legally held. It does not make it OK to hold material that should not have been retained. It is hugely worrying that such worthy and distinguished people do not understand the basics of the law. Ruskin’s decision to obey the law does not imply a value judgement of any kind.”

    It seems we all have much to learn about archives and record keeping!!

  3. Yes, all the professional archivists that I have approached, including the National Archives Data Protection Officer, don’t agree with Audrey’s interpretation of the legal advice  which if you read you will find is regarding transferring files to another institution, makes an assumption and does not mention section 33 at all).
    I’ve updated the blog above to include latest links on this, including the following from archivist Sarah Wickham who has expertise in this area:

    We think there is an interesting question, yes, as to whether the law is being consistently breached by many organisations and we welcome a national debate on this question. Personal abuse is not in the Ruskin style. By all means field robust arguments: that way, we all learn. [Ruskin College facebook response 24 October at 09:32]I’m not sure there’s the need for a “national debate” actually.  Educational organisations should take advantage of existing specialist sources of expertise rather than relying on general legal advice.  For historic records and Data Protection it’s the Code of Practice – the link in full is files, for example of student admissions (as the Ruskin situation seems to be), containing personal data collected by an organisation prior to the introduction of data protection legislation in the UK in 1984, are likely to be “category e” personal data under the current Act: recorded personal information that is not category a-d information (!) and is held by a public authority as defined by the FOI Acts. This category divides into two subcategories: relatively structured data, and unstructured data.  The former is defined in the Code of Practice as “…data that is part of, or is intended to be part of, a set of information relating to individuals and that is structured by reference to individuals or by criteria relating to individuals but that does not have an internal structure or referencing system that would facilitate retrieval of specific information about particular individuals.  An example would be a set of case files with a chronological arrangement of papers within each file and which was not otherwise indexed.” – student files are a perfect example of this.The Code of Practice clearly lays out the way in which the DPA applies to these sorts of records, the exemptions, and the kind of access regime to enable historical research allowed by the DPA section 33 involving the records to take place.  Get educated.I think a better subject for “national debate” is organisations dealing with their records without reference to any policies, retention & disposal schedules and so on – for public authorities, this means acting directly against the advice in the FoI section 46 code of practice.  Ruskin have clearly stated in response to my first FoI request that the College does not have a records management policy; at the time of writing (5/11/12) I am still awaiting the detailed retention guidance referred to in their “data protection policy”.  The retrospective legal advice obtained from Eversheds (dated on the Ruskin website 21st October 2012, well after the preparations for the premises move during which the records destruction appears to have taken place) concerns the potential transfer of historic files to the Bishopsgate Institute rather than retention per se.

  4. 22nd November: Ruskin College has taken down its entire Facebook discussion page, which included a great deal of debate about this (amongst many other things).

  5. Now the facebook page is back up again. How strange – I wonder if the two day Ofsted inspection had anything to do with it.

  6. seems a little ironic that the NSA is able to keep records of us all in the interests of the national security of the USA but the UK protection of the data privacy of our own citizens does not allow room for any discussion about whether any of that material could be of cultural or historical interest to the people who live here

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