Saturday, 20 October 2012

More Clarity On The Ruskin Dispute

The row over Ruskin College’s archives, records and artefacts has been continuing with Hilda Keen’s latest views being circulated around the enetworks ( and a former student at the College posting a piece on the History Workshop Journal website: .

 There are two aspects of the continuing row.

1)      What further clarifications are needed from the College?
2)      What is the goal we are trying to achieve: a personal vendetta against the Principal, or learn the lessons, have a good future for the College, and ensure that the University world thinks carefully about its archive and student record policies?

 Further Explanation from Professor Audrey Mullender

I have now received further clarification from Professor Mullender as follows:

 ‘I am quite happy to comment further. First and foremost, we received legal advice today which completely confirmed that I was right to have concerns about holding onto personal information about still living former students. Furthermore, it clarified that placing the student records with another organisation would make things worse rather than better. We would still retain the responsibility for answering any data protection enquiries so there could be no sense in which the records would be sealed. If we needed a file back to look something up, it would have to be accessed by both the holding organisation (to find it) and us (to answer the query). Data protection was always, and remains, my major consideration in respect of student files. People have been poo pooing this, but that is tantamount to telling me to break the law. I would further add that, as might be expected, our files held information on trade union membership which is classed in the law as ‘sensitive information’, thus compounding the problem. Our papers are not government papers or public records and they are not subject to any 30 or 100-year rule. Furthermore, personal information remains just that while the individual is alive and we have no way of knowing when our alumni die or whether their relatives would still find information about them to be sensitive in certain regards.

 In answer to Denise Pakeman, we have digitised the information we believe we are allowed to hold without express individual permission, under the law and our own crystal clear policy, right back to the earliest records we held. 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. I must say that the legal advice we have received would throw into severe question the old files held not only by us but, I am told, by Oxford Colleges and I’m sure by others. In this respect, the questions you posed to open up a wider debate are vitally important and I hope they will get the attention they deserve.

Denis Pakeman refers to a number of pieces of memorabilia. The Bowerman plaque was the sole piece we held about him and it has gone on loan to join an entire display about him and his union at the Marx Memorial Library where it makes much more sense. The Raphael Samuel portrait and photograph went with the half of his archive that we held, which made perfect sense. We deliberated long and hard about loaning our holdings to the Bishopsgate Institute but Hilda’s own research assistant told me that he had to read everything twice because the collection was split and made so much less sense in that form, the clincher being that he found one letter that had one page in London and one with us. He was on a year’s full-time funding but I can’t imagine many other researchers being able to duplicate their reading of an archive just because of the eccentric way it was held. It must also be owned that the Bishopsgate, with its funded archivist, is better able to catalogue and promote the material than we are, to the benefit of scholars. It is often forgotten, but we are a working college and we are funded to serve our learners, first and foremost. The GB Shaw portrait was not ours and I returned it to its rightful owners, the Labour Party. Can it please be acknowledged that I found this lost painting, had someone from Canada confirm that this was the case and have this week had a most handsome congratulation from a Shaw scholar in Ireland. The Kitson mural is going to South Africa, by special request, and we naturally retain the commemorative plaque to David Kitson as an Honorary Fellow of our college. If the past is no longer wanted at Ruskin, as Denise alleges, why have I spent so much of my own money on repairing and framing photographs and other items for display, why have I spent whole days with removers and premises staff bringing memorabilia to our newly consolidated site and embellishing the new Boardroom, reception area, two trade union studies areas and so on with our wonderful collections? I am particularly glad to get the chance to comment again on the miners’ strike banner which Hilda Kean characterised as being displayed on a corridor leading to a toilet. It is actually the corridor leading to the Common Room in our flagship trade union studies centre, where coffee is served and evenings are spent. There happens to be a toilet next to the Common Room, which is probably not an uncommon juxtaposition, given the aforementioned coffee. The banner is large, the wall-space was perfect and the users of the building are much enjoying its highly appropriate presence. I would hazard a guess that, in its former home in our own library, folk relatively rarely glanced at it. It is now in solitary glory and much better displayed, in my opinion. We have also been able to give prominence to photos taken over a period of a century and a half, portraits and other memorabilia in our new home. Further, we have kept the working class visual tradition alive by helping to design and make a three-storey mosaic with a mosaic artist and participants in a series of WEA classes locally.

We are not a museum or a public library and we do not employ an archivist. One set of papers we held was never consulted while it was with us but has been constant use since it was married up with a whole family of papers at the People’s History Museum, on loan from us. We care about a living, learning present drawing upon the lessons of the past. Because we really care, we share our riches with other collections and we retain only those we can truly care for and truly make useful to others.’ 

Student (and Staff) Records 

As has been pointed out to me by a local authority archivist the question of the preservation or not of student records is the same one faced by any employer re- its staff records, or indeed a local authority social services department re-clients or a school re-pupils. I have been in local authority archives recently at which enquirers have been told personal information on pupils is subject to a 100 year rule. The  Records Management Society has issued guidance on the retention of records for local authorities and schools, supported by documents such as a toolkit for schools. The archivist wonders whether there is similar guidance issued for Universities.  

Another archivist has drawn my attention to several matters which I have drawn Prof Mullender’s attention to. The ICO/SoA (now ARA) has a Code of Conduct on Data Protection. JISC has guidance on Records Management aimed at the Higher Education sector. Ruskin College may be classed as a Public Authority under the Freedom of Information Act and therefore its corporate records may well also be classed as public records. The archivist stresses that it is possible to deposit records containing sensitive personal information with an archive and find a solution to deal with Data Protection subject access requests from living individuals or their legal representatives. Archives are doing this on a frequent basis – such requests are few and once an individual is deceased then DP is no longer relevant. There are a lot of college heads who have successfully implemented records management and archive procedures for their records. In Oxford several archivists/records managers should be available for advice
and for a small and lasting impact. Finally the archivist suggests that the College might consider developing a retention schedule for its own records from a records manager on a consultancy basis.

What Should Be Done Now? 

With all the concern about what has happened at Ruskin and the obvious interest in the history and tradition of working class education, including its independent strand from the Plebs League to the National Labour Colleges, the time is right for several things to be done, especially by academics: 

·         Go to the Open Day if you can and see the new building and the Library. 

·         Spread the word about Ruskin’s far-reaching educational opportunities for those with few or no qualifications (see ). 

·         Return to the principles and values behind the original History Workshop movement, and develop of a new network to promote them. 

·         Support  the Independent Working Class Education Project, which meets again on 24 November at The Northern College in Barnsley.  

·         Re-engage with the contemporary work of the Workers’ Educational Association:   

·         Initiate debates in every College and University about the future of their archives and student records.  

·         Stimulate a national debate about the relationship between data protection and the retention of material that may be considered of historical interest.

(1)   Anne Summers Editorial Blog on the crisis facing archives can be read on In it she mentions the new Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives.

(2)   See my blog pieces:

a.      ‘The Abolition of MLA: Is Part of Wuider Threat to Inclusive Heritage? (August 2010):

o     ‘The Threat to Archives and Records’ in December 2010:

o   Sing Along with Peggy Seeger: Taking Ruskin College Forward and the Future of Archives (October 2012):

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