Ruskin College, an independent college based in Oxford that specializes in providing educational opportunities for adults with few or no qualifications, has been accused of destroying historical archives detailing its students’ origins and academic progress, as well as copies of dissertations.
Following a move to a new site in Old Headington, which has recently enjoyed a £17m refurbishment, most paper records were destroyed. This was done in order to obey laws regarding privacy, which, in some cases, do not allow personal data to be stored. However, according to protestors, the actions were not legally necessary, as the importance of historical archives can take precedence over data protection laws.
Whilst Ruskin College is not part of the collegiate system of Oxford University, it is affiliated with it, having been established in 1899 to provide an education to working-class men, and later women. It is recognised as closely associated with 20th century radicalism, having links to both the Labour Party and Trade Union movement.
Protestors have been vocal in expressing their disapproval of the college’s actions, laying a wreath in memory of the lost records, and those “whose lives have been eradicated from the historical record”, according to Dr Hilda Kean, a former dean at the college.
John Walker, of the University and College Union, said: “Ruskin is so much part of world history. I feel there is now an immense gap in our knowledge of 20th Century Britain.”
Alex Gordon and Bob Crow, president and general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, wrote in a letter to the Guardian that “Ruskin College[…] has betrayed its trust to our movement.”
Over 7,500 people have signed a petition criticising the destruction of the papers, including Sir Brian Harrison, previous editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, author Alan Bennett, and Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council.
However, the Principal, Professor Audrey Mullender, has defended the college’s decision: “Our Registry was holding past student data unlawfully, including sensitive data as defined by the legislation, without the permission of the data subjects. This personal information exceeded what it was reasonable or fair to retain.”
“In its place, we now have a digitised, interactive database with basic information about who studied here and when, on which past students can register the details they would like us to keep.”
“We celebrate and cherish our past, as may be seen from the memorabilia on display around the college.”
Whilst personal data can be legally sensitive, the law is unclear on keeping records concerning living people, meaning that neither the protestors, nor the college, can be affirmed as holding the legally correct position.
The Data Protection Act 1998 does not give specific time periods for retention of different types of records. It simply states that personal information should not be kept longer than is necessary.
Oxford University’s Data Protection Policy provides some guidance on the retention of student records: “It is advisable to keep student records for six years after the student leaves the University (to allow for appeals, complaints etc). After this, files should be reduced to holding the basic facts (i.e. enough material to confirm the student’s personal details, marks and degree class, and which will normally not include any sensitive personal data).”
The guidance for Oxford staff administrators dealing with student records does, however, go on to state that “consideration should be given to the archival value of the material, and to where else the material will be held”.
A spokesperson for Oxford University said: “It is for each organisation to decide how long it keeps personal data, having regard to its own needs.”With specific reference to the University, they explained that “it is up to each department to determine its own policy”.
Charlie Hempstead, first year historian at St Hughes, commented: “It seems a waste to destroy records that can help us understand the social changes going on in Britain at this time. The academic progress of students who are now far advanced in their lives and careers does not seem particularly sensitive information, and it seems the college could have handled this matter with a little common sense whilst still sticking to the spirit, if not the letter of the law.”