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By Nathan Akehurst
Names of those interviewed have been altered to protect anonymity.
Ruskin College is the city of Oxford’s third main higher education institution, and one that we often forget about in light of the sheer size of Oxford and Brookes’ student populations, and the similarly-named Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. It is an institution we would do well to remember though, one unique in that it was set up in 1899 to promote independent working-class education, located in Oxford deliberately in the face of educational opportunities at the University that most at the time would never have been able to even dream of accessing. In 1909 when its students walked out, it was a precursor to the Great Unrest, one of the most seminal periods of radicalism and grassroots militant action in British social history. Its mission remains ostensibly the same, to promote higher education access to those whom it would usually be unattainable- i.e. those with few or no qualifications. Given its progressive and distinguished mission, it is then striking as well as a great shame when word by word in rumours, allegations and isolated cases a picture starts to leak out of intimidation, unaccountability, paranoia and fear sowed by a management at the College which seems increasingly out of touch with the student body and unwilling to engage it with the most basic levels of consultation.
Last year, principal Audrey Mullender took the decision unilaterally to destroy the College’s student records dating back to its foundation. These were a unique treasure trove to labour historians- the academic work and backgrounds of people who at the time would never have otherwise been able to access education, many of whom went on to become significant protagonists in industrial relations and politics. To discuss her decision to obliterate the archives (something even the firm hired to carry out the destruction had second thoughts about) under a fallacious Data Protection Act justification is to revisit a case already condemned by historians and other academics internationally, a story that has spread like wildfire out of the aging stone walls of Old Headington to the national media, a source which most of the student body had to use to find out about the decision. Students and indeed most academic staff were not consulted throughout the process, or even informed, having to find out about this monumental decision through the lens of the media. Yet this is not something unique to the archives episode, but something that increasingly characterises the modus operandi by which the College behaves towards the students that it is supposed to be serving.
Ruskin’s recent decisions range from the petty to the downright disturbing. Students have been apparently told what they can and can’t wear (tracksuit bottoms are deemed inappropriate) and the canteen has been banned from serving chocolate on the grounds that it will allegedly cause the students to behave hyperactively (although Coca-Cola remains on the menu.) This pettiness is something that would raise eyebrows at a secondary school, let alone an adult education college catering to adults of all ages and with a self-proclaimed tradition of emancipation. Internet filters are in operation to the point at which one student claims he is unable to complete his sociology work effectively- the filters block anything even using the word ‘pornography’- and furthermore, students allege that their browsing history has been monitored and then quoted back to them by an inebriated member of staff. Darker rumours of undercover police on campus are circulating, as well as cases of direct and unwarranted intimidation of members of the College. Whether these stories are true or not, and whilst I believe those students I interviewed I am hesitant to jump to conclusions, what they point to is a general culture of fear and mistrust springing from management’s bizarre practices and unwillingness to keep its students properly informed.
Blair, an undergraduate says that ‘the level of fear among students is so high that it seeps into every crevice of our lives. People fear socialising with one another because of how things that happen- even minor ones- are reported to management.’ Ed, another undergraduate agrees, and adds- ‘the culture of fear is a growing one- I had no idea until today that students are being told what they can and cannot wear.’ Rosa, a first-year, says that this culture has been ‘many years in the making.’ She cites the case of a former student union vice-president who was threatened with expulsion for attempting to campaign against the draconian internet usage regulations, as well as the fact that staff have not received a pay rise in four years. She goes on to allege that Mullender has interpreted staff contracts to the extent that some are working seven days a week, citing a variety of unaddressed grievances with pay and conditions- ironic at a college so heavily funded by the trade unions! She herself relates an incident whereby she was accosted by the principal over her posts on Facebook that even-handedly criticised aspects of college policy. This then happened on a second occasion when Rosa was approached at 2am and again told to ‘be careful’ over what she had posted on Facebook. Once she confronted management and asked them to make an official complaint or stop violating her privacy, nothing further was done. In a separate incident, Ed told me how posters advertising student meetings had been torn down. Blair and Rosa independently add that the the trade union branch and student societies- especially activist ones- have been ordered to seek permission for all student meetings and told that they cannot meet on campus otherwise. The sanctity of campus is an issue in other ways- the interviewees talked about how non-residential students (who comprise a large proportion of the student body) are unable to access the college out of hours, and therefore are denied access to the college library and other learning resources to an extent which residential students are not. This is again something management have utterly failed to resolve. Meanwhile, Blair claims the principal is on site in the small hours observing students going out and returning from clubs, is alleged to have emailed students whilst inebriated including himself, dines alongside them- he complains that ‘there is rarely if ever any privacy.’
Question marks also surround the expulsion of one student last term for alleged drug abuse. Gerry (another undergraduate, Blair and Ed separately raised the issue. The student in question was given three hours notice at night to leave the college the next day. She had no chance to represent herself or be represented by other students in what looked like an utter miscarriage of justice. Rosa speculated that this student was moved against on the day of the heavily-attended November 21st student demonstration for a reason; the core of politically-active students were not on site and unable to intervene. Off the back of the case, another round of speculation about covert policing arose when allegedly students arrived and quickly disappeared in college accommodation during term time. It has been tentatively confirmed that swabs and searches were conducted of student rooms in their absence, during the holidays. This is again a flagrant violation of responsible and fair policing. Blair adds to this by raising concerns with the sheer level of surveillance- security cameras not only at key access points to the college but around residential and communal areas, creating what Rosa calls an ‘Orwellian-type situation.’ The College have once again refused to discuss this matter with the student body or their representatives, and many staff apparently seem equally in the dark.
The students I interviewed all pointed toward the lack of student self-organisation as responsible for facilitating this communication breakdown and alleged abuses of power. The student union, they said, has been almost entirely inactive, beyond spending all of last year’s budget on a summer party, the bulk of the money going toward a massage parlour. Their meetings are nonexistent and they have vacillated to the point of apparent refusal over holding an election for a new student union executive. Blair and Rosa claim that student union officers have not turned up at meetings with management (including those over the archive issue) and proceeded to lie to students about it. They argue that management are contributing toward this with their blockages of moves toward student self-organisation and are at best benefitting from this situation and at worst actively complicit in it.
Gerry says he is ‘scared of [his] room being bugged.’ Ed is ‘making every effort to secure [his] laptop.’ Rosa is ‘living in an environment of fear and insecurity.’ The interviews had to be held in a pub off site, such was the level of anxiety over the issue, and after a meeting of a number of students, some of whom were afraid to speak up due to potential repercussions. This article does not aim to provide any concrete answers to the situation, immediately lay blame at anyone’s doorsteps, or confirm/deny any of what is flying from the rumour mill. What it does aim to do, though, is open a discourse about the situation, and give voice to the real concerns that students at Ruskin have, concerns that are actively preventing them from devolving the full attention to their studies that they should be doing. It is quite clear that when this pervasive atmosphere of suspicion, unaccountability and lack of communication exists, there are serious problems- perhaps institutional ones- that require fixing. Ruskin is undergoing an era of transformative change. It has moved from Walton Street near Worcester College into Old Headington in its multi-million pound rebuild. Its principal destroys student archives, happily handshakes with Conservative Members of Parliament, and has the 1984 miners’ strike banner that the library once proudly displayed moved out of easy sight. It is certainly not the bastion of left-wing activism it once was (except among elements of the student body.) In striking out toward its bold new future in the twenty-first century, Ruskin College must be careful it does not lose touch with its roots and what made it unique and inspirational in the first place.