Fear and Unaccountability at Ruskin College

Fear and Unaccountability at Ruskin College

Image credit: Architects’ Journal


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.

  1. Your article is speculative and ill- informed
    1. Pornograpy – the primiscuosity at ruskin is rampant and unhealthy for a place serving the vunerable and needs to be kept at bay. There are many sex abuse victims and sex offenders here. Do the maths genius.

    2. Ruskin serves the mentally Ill – so some people could be unerved by a hoodie. So what? Take it off. So some people are unerved by drugs. Go and smoke somewhere else. This is someones later life second chance. Should’nt be risked by some jumped up reactionary in twenties moron. This is not a normal univercity my friend. If you are looking for boundless inconsiderate living go somewhere else. Holistic development and healing is being attempted here whether or not you can see it yet…

  2. I attended Ruskin in 1994/5 on the social history course. Anything unusual about that, well I was and still am a Conservative a former military, Christian and Royalist and a managing director of my own business. Everything that Ruskin finds difficulty in accepting. I was probably the only one that has walked through its portals. I received an education beyond my expectations and was greatly appreciative of the manner it was carried out. For a Principal to destroy historical artefacts from a unique college like Ruskin is nothing more than educational rape.

  3. whilst I have to agree with the dictatorial tendencies of the Ruskin managerial staff Nathan, which is indicative of most bureaucracies heavily influenced by neoliberal management techniques, as most academic institutions, the majority of teaching staff at Ruskin are of the highest quality/dedication and it would be a great shame if future students were deterred from applying due to managerial actions and posts such as this one. Ruskin has a lot to offer working class (et al) students, the management can be fought if needs must, which we as students need to endeavour to quell and stymie, and are, hopefully, in the process of fighting. Thanks for the post.

  4. What a joke, would appear this lady hasn’t got a clue what Ruskin is about. Met her once at Hillary Kerrs retirement very cold lady got the feeling she didn’t like me, maybe because I was from Ireland. Ruskin college means a lot to me, the staff are fantastic. Richard Bryant is a legend and to think she is doing what she is doing is a disgrace and should be stopped. Leave Ruskin alone and bog off back to Warwick were you once allegedly lectured.

  5. AUDREYMULLENDERGETOUT 10th January 2013, 00:08


    1) pornography -your argument that there are sexual abuse victims here is completely irrelevant. for a start, people aren’t going to be bandying around porn in public and having a wank in the library. another thing is, if there are ex-sexual abusers here, does it not make sense for them to get off on sex harmlessly, rather than taking out their sexual frustrations on other students? Also, ‘sexual promiscuity’. Do not impose your bourgeois sexual attitudes on other people. So some people like to have vanilla sex, others like BDSM etc. People can sleep with whoever they like. If its consensual and both parties are in agreement, then its fine.

    2) Drugs. I support a zero-tolerance drug policy too.
    But as a student here, I find it absolutely abhorrent that a student who clearly has a problem with substance abuse was accused of dealing was given 3 hours to leave the campus and was made an example of to suit the agenda of the management. She should’ve been offered help and support, not made an example of.

  6. AUDREYMULLENDERGETOUT 10th January 2013, 00:13

    Oh, and on your line on hoodies and trackies.. It is not the place of the management to tell me or any of my fellow students what they can and can’t wear. That is imposing and pathetic.

  7. Go to a sex shop. Buy a dvd. Read a book on vunerability and sexual abuse. Then look at the ground. Are your feet firmly there? – be thankful for an educational insitution llike ruskin changing the lives of vunerable people and stop biting the hand that feeds. Bite abuse. Bite bullying. And think less about petty inconviniencies. Rather arrogant. Rather spolit.

  8. this is sloppy ad propaganda bullshit. dress code? what dress code lol? people feeling insecure your wrong again. they banned candy no one cares. and a drug addict student getting kicked out the college was being very fair with its 0% policy by giving her 3 chances.
    this is a vindictive rubbish piece of journalism i have no sympathy if you get kicked out.

  9. Adrian Pritchard 10th January 2013, 01:55

    Let’s look at the facts:
    Dress code: I have never ever been told what to/what not to wear at Ruskin. I don’t know anyone who has. Pissed Principals: I think if Audrey was staggering around at 2am off her face and threatening people someone would’ve mentioned it by now! Undercover Police: Erm…..paranoid much? Even if there were with the now expelled drug user/dealer wandering around campus then good! Which brings me to my next point. Drug user: She was given multiple chances, Certain people seem to want a drug user on the premises causing problems, certain people who clearly have no experience of how dangerous/disruptive they can be! I’m glad she’s gone. Ruskin did the right thing there. Certain people need to grow up.
    Porn: Ok, Ruskin’s filter is a bit much, it’s an adult college, students need to be trusted to use the internet sensibly but this is an issue that can be resolved easily and quickly without pathetic badly written articles like this one. Chocolate: Oh come on! FFS! Is this REALLY worthy of a protest?! Get off your fat arse, go to the shop and buy some! Ruskin is a GOOD college and provides real opportunities for those of us who haven’t been given many! It’s interesting how the majority of people in this little gang of whingers are spoilt over priviledged brats. Don’t let them spoil it for the rest of us!

  10. Martin and Adrian you truly are ignorant to everything before your eyes aren’t you.

  11. AUDREYMULLENDERGETOUT 10th January 2013, 02:28

    Adrian -we agree, the chocolate is petty. But to be quite frank, that isn’t the problem. The problem is the prescriptive and autocratic way in which this policy was imposed with NO CONSULTATION with students, which seems to be a theme here.

    And the trackies? A student here was told that tracksuit bottoms were ‘inappropriate’ and was told he was not allowed to wear them.

    The fact of the matter, is the student was offered no support, and used in order to be made an example of.

    @Anonymous. I think you’re missing the point. If someone is going to a sex shop and buying magazines, then the porn ban on the internet is a bit pointless, isn’t it? People are going to look at it on campus anyway. I am thankful for Ruskin, its a great place… but its not good that students are not being consulted on any decisions, students are being told what to wear, and its utterly disgusting that the principal turned around and has destroyed the archives. an invaluable resource for labour historians.

  12. Nathan Akehurst 10th January 2013, 02:49

    To those criticising the journalistic quality of this piece; may I remind all that I have stated no unconfirmed assertions as fact, where speculation has existed I have acknowledged that it is speculation, and my sources are a number of current students who would prefer to remain anonymous. Their concerns and the way in which these concerns have not been addressed formed the rationale for compiling this article, nothing more and nothing less.

  13. Dress code…………. As those who were with me at Ruskin will remember I wore a collar and tie,That was voluntary.

  14. Why not look into why so many tutors have left since Mullender’s reign? Bullying was the cause.

  15. Most of the accusations can’t be proved and sound like bullshit, just kids being silly. That isn’t the point – an educational insitution does not want to be responisble for porn on the system, do you know how many diffrent types of porn are acsessible? Not all porn is healthy, in fact, most come from abusive situations. Yes, there are boundaries, and guess what? Some people need them! Maybe there is a reason for the porn ban? Thought of that?

  16. AUDREYMULLENDERGETOUT 10th January 2013, 16:43

    I dislike porn as much as the next person. My point is that Reichfuhrer -sorry- The Principal -who seems to be operating under a fucking dictatorship -deems it fit to impose her reign upon us, where quite frankly stupid ideas are made reality simply because she has the power. We are ADULTS who can make our OWN DECISIONS. This isn’t about porn, this isn’t about chocolate. This is about the virtual dictatorship we are living under. She needs to buck up her ideas and start acting in a more democratic way, or leave.

  17. Half of this article I don’t doubt, and I dislike Audrey as much as the next person, but people worrying about their rooms being bugged? Afraid to meet up with each other? Are they living in the fifth Harry Potter book or something? Please. Stop being pussies.

  18. I attend Ruskin College and did my degree there and finished it a few years ago. The main reason I went there and stayed there was because I got to live in for the whole of my degree and got fed as well. This is the main reason I stayed there and so did most of the people at Ruskin College the same time as me. In my experience Ruskin College seemed to recruit students who can do the degrees at Ruskin College well. But are not too bright on how the world works.
    What I mean by this they think if someone wants to take advantage of you they will do it to you face not behind your back. The students were taken advantage by Ruskin College all the time while I was there by the Tutors and management.
    These included having degree course modules with no tutors and the students having to teach themselves. One module as part of the History and Social Sciences degree was you had to write two history essays in a 24 hour period as part of your assessment. The bad thing about this was the people doing the Social Sciences degree had never written a History essay before and all failed this assessment. This has since been changed to something better. The person who’s bright idea this was former Ruskin College Dean Hilda Kean, the person behind this petition to stop the destruction of Ruskin College’s archives. She never did anything to stop Audrey Mullender’s plans for Ruskin College when she worked there but now she is gone she attacks her. She is just like most of the staff who work at Ruskin College they are cowards. They moan about how bad Audrey Mullender is but never do anything to stop her.
    When I was there was some drug taking amongst students but no more or less than there would be at any other higher education institution. They was one woman who brought her baby into her lessons and breast fed it to make a feminist statement. I found that really pathetic really. When it came to sexual activities I know there was some bed hopping going on. At the Headington site all the straight women were married or had boyfriends. All the single women seemed to be lesbians or not interested in any men.
    Personally I think Ruskin College is living off its past glories. It’s not the only game in town now. Its students are not the same calibre they were years ago because of this. Ruskin College is not set up to do degree courses the retention rate and exam results are terrible. One cohort of the Social Sciences degree at Ruskin College started with 30 people and finished in the third year with 2 people. That is terrible and most people I knew that finished their degrees at Ruskin College got 2:2’s. For anyone thinking of going to Ruskin College I would go the first year there seeing it’s free but afterwards transfer to another university. It’s the best way. To show you how good a degree at Ruskin College was when I went there. I knew two people during the time period I was Ruskin College who got degrees from there and went on to work at Ruskin College. One became a Warden at Ruskin College. The other worked at the Headington Site emptying the bins.
    I’m not at all bitter about my time at Ruskin College. I met new people and did a degree there. I do regret not going onto another university at the
    end of my first year though.

  19. Audrey Mullender 11th January 2013, 16:19

    It is a shame that the standard of student journalism at the University of Oxford (The Oxford Student Online, January 09 2013) has sunk to personal abuse and jumbling together a string of disconnected and garbled allegations. Whilst it is perfectly reasonable, if belated, to cover the student records issue (which was fully and openly debated at a highly democratic Governing Executive meeting at Ruskin College in December), it would have been more helpful to open this out into a debate about the potential conflict in all higher education institutions between data protection and student records retention. We are given to understand, for example, that there are kilometres of Oxford’s own student files in the basement of the Bodleian. Is the proper permission in place to hold onto these or does this contravene the fair and reasonable retention of personal information under current law, let alone under the tougher measures due to be introduced by the European Union? Come on, student journalists: get your teeth into that one.

    As to the other points mentioned in the Oxford Student Online article (and bearing in mind that most of them are at best wildly exaggerated and at worst wholly inaccurate), Ruskin is proud of promoting healthy eating through its new staff/student cafeteria (which is also open to the public – come and give it a try), proud of pursuing a zero tolerance policy on life-threatening drugs (a student was believed to be dealing on site, which the police helped to bring to an end – proper procedures and student welfare were at all times observed during the course of this) and proud of an IT policy that also helps keep students safe and within the law. There is no dress code at Ruskin and student politics are wholly a matter for students to resolve. The wonderful, hand-painted miners’ banner is prominently displayed in Ruskin’s flagship trade union centre, along with other memorabilia all over the College. We have recently had good reports from both the QAA and Ofsted, and our External Examiners confirm that academic standards here meet, and often exceed, national expectations.

    Ruskin’s Principal pleads guilty to working long hours at her desk, scarcely surprising in someone with such a distinguished background as an Academician of the Social Sciences, internationally known for her research on violence against women and children. It is that activism that she shares with Tory MP, Nicola Blackwood, but it is the College’s current MP, Andrew Smith, who is a member of Ruskin Council and a frequent and welcome visitor to Ruskin.

    The most important thing to mention about Ruskin, as ever, is its open access policy to anyone who has yet to complete their education. Degree-level courses in a range of subjects are available without A levels and there are routes into study through short courses that help build confidence and study skills. More information is available at http://www.ruskin.ac.uk

  20. Well said indeed. Accusations like the ones here laid bear for all to read only serve to dammage the experience for current students ( as well as quite clearly raising red flags concerning the intelligence and integrity of those that have orchestrated this. For those few that actually think this stuff is cool, hip and radical… get in the real world, what… you think that this is going to bring down Ruskin or its Principal… laughable….again look to the words in brackets. Often in this life people try to make trouble under the guise of helping others but actually they would rather make a name for themselves…its textbook stuff, sad and deplorable.

    Ruskin please continue being what you are and allways have been, a great place to learn. Audrey Mullender please continue to serve the College as you allways have done, with respect and integrity. That is all.

  21. In response to the comment made by Nathan Akehurst. Nathan I think that you will find that they are critiquing on more than just your defamation of a persons character, but more so on your skill at writing. Although you can utilize a paragraph can’t you..well done Nathan.

  22. Lazy propaganda. Bad fact checking. Yes, Audrey has her faults and the archives business was a shambles. But draconian regulations? Really…? It is my belief that Ruskin students actually get away with far more that any other uni would allow.
    I finished my degree last year and am very grateful to Ruskin for giving me that opportunity – a big thing for me as a mature student with no A Levels.
    Also – the Red Ball last year was not only the best I saw in my four years at Ruskin, but one of the best parties I have ever been to full stop. It is all part of the student experience, or should be. There was a small holistic treatment room, but this was just one tiny facet of a beautiful, diverse and magical evening which said goodbye to Walton Street in the fashion it deserved! As I’m sure anyone who was actually a member of the college at the time will agree.
    The childish troublemakers behind this article need to grow up and realise that we are privileged to have somewhere like Ruskin to study, and that your experience at there is what you make it – for me, purely positive.

  23. Kind of pisses me off that this article was written by an oxford student…where so many deep rooted problems of elitism are given birth to and actually manifest into the world…not only that, but was it not researched, and published in a fashion typical of the ruling classes…ignorant, insensitive and plain stupid.

  24. And who were the students interviewed for this? Oh, that’s right, the first-year ‘we’re so cool, let’s start a revolution!’ morons. What a suprise. I don’t remember anyone asking me what I think, then again, I guess I just wasn’t enough of a blazing coward to go and hide in a pub because I was ‘scared’!

    Stop. Being. So. Ridiculous. This isn’t some fun little game or film. You’re not being draconically oppressed (as much as I’d know you’d enjoy that). There’s no conspiracy. The student on drugs (and she was) was given numerous opportunities and was being a downright pain in the arse to the people who were living in. Ruskin is not a rehab clinic. It’s a college. I wouldn’t blame them if they gave her twenty minutes notice.

    Instead of having an article that’s all purely speculation, why don’t you try and… you know, get some facts, instead of pandering to a group who think they’re the saviours of the college?

  25. Adrian Pritchard 13th January 2013, 20:26

    Well said Kacey! It’s not all first years though, just one small gloop of pathetic losers who most people are having a good laugh at anyway. Interesting how no one outside the Ketamine Revolutionary Front appears to have been interviewed by Akehurst. Wonder why that is? Any answer Nathan? I would come ask you personally but I’m worried I’ll run into drunken principals staggering around out there, not to mention the undercover police all over the place. Oh and one final tip, if you organise a demo (I’m referring to the one a few weeks ago, can’t remember the subject, they all seem to blend into one) it’s always a good idea to show up for your own protests! Just shows your commitment to whatever the issue of the week is, know what I’m saying?

  26. Nathan Akehurst 14th January 2013, 01:46

    Oh, there was a conspiracy against you because you weren’t interviewed. If I do a follow-up article I’d be perfectly happy to take some comments from opponents of this end of the argument, however what has been seen on this thread thus far (hence the round of deletions) is a round of personal attacks and cheap accusations.

    I took the story on behalf of The Oxford Student because as far as I’m aware Ruskin does not have a student newspaper, and because several students contacted me with concerns and it felt fair to give those concerns a voice as part of what is quite clearly an opinion piece. If that makes me somehow ‘elitist’ then so be it.

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