Following the recent mass display of solidarity with Lee Humber, Jo Land provides some vital insights into the situation at Ruskin
On Saturday, 18th May, Ruskin College staff, students past and present, and trade union activists from all over the country marched in Oxford. They were there to show their solidarity with Dr Lee Humber, the Ruskin College lecturer who was recently suspended, seemingly for no other reason than being a trade union activist. The suspension took place shortly after a unanimous vote of no confidence in the college’s principal, Paul Di Felice. That this could happen at Ruskin, a bastion of trade union education for 120 years, is shocking, but sadly not surprising for those who have been following developments at Ruskin in recent years.
Two years ago, the college’s BA and MA in International Labour and Trade Union studies courses were cancelled, in the face of a worldwide outcry, and the rest of the college’s trade union education provision has been hollowed out to the point where only a few short courses run. How has such catastrophic damage to the college been allowed to happen?
I was an Access to Higher Education student at Ruskin in 2017/2018, and I have seen first-hand the disastrous effects of the (mis)management of the college. Before my arrival, staffing levels had been cut to the bone, to the point where the college could no longer function. There was, seemingly, no staff to handle any of the admin required for the 60-strong Access cohort, which resulted in most of the admin being dumped onto already hard-pressed lecturers, who were being expected to take on more and more work.
The Head of FE left six weeks into my course, after only three months in the post. The Head of HE followed suit a few months later. The next Head of FE left at the end of the academic year. Staff turnover at Ruskin has been incredible: 85 staff in two and a half years. As a student, I am not party to the full reasons for their departure. But what I can tell you is that dedicated, hardworking lecturers and other staff have been treated as utterly disposable and expendable and that the staff affected were disproportionately made up of women.
Ruskin is, and always has been, about working-class education. That seemed just as true as ever at the time I attended. But understaffing and high staff turnover has had devastating effects on all students, but particularly on vulnerable students. I saw courageous students who were trying to turn their lives around being utterly failed by the management, time and time again.
The Access to Social Science course began the second term without any staff in place to teach three of the four modules, and even once these staff had been secured, teaching hours were inadequate. Management failed to approve some assessment specifications until the term was almost over. On two occasions, students were given incorrect assessments which resulted in them having to do the work again, in whole or in part - a predictable consequence of laying off admin staff.
The resulting chaos led to that term’s work dragging on into the third term and to the academic year being extended to allow people to complete the course. This was a concession that was only agreed to after a crisis meeting with Paul Di Felice, organised by Ruskin UCU, Ruskin Students’ Union, and myself as a Student Representative, in which we unanimously voiced the opinion that the majority of the Access cohort were at serious risk of not completing the course.
Students with extra needs or who needed reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act received wholly inadequate support until it became clear to management that the whole cohort was at risk of failure. For the majority of the course, the students who needed support and/or classroom assistance due to a specific learning difficulty or disability went, for the most part, without. The head of the Learning Support service left, and to my knowledge, has not been replaced.
The college counsellor was made redundant shortly before my arrival, and a part-time counselling service was only reinstated just after a series of incidents that culminated in the death of a Ruskin student in police custody. A meeting took place between students and Paul Di Felice shortly afterwards in which hurt, upset and angry students aired a catalogue of understandable grievances at the college management’s failure to support students, and, most alarmingly, that they felt unsafe. They were fully justified in feeling unsafe. As a Student Representative, I spent hours every week representing students and liaising with the Student Union and staff. That comes with the job – but I had not expected to spend all of my time fighting for the absolute bare minimum of requirements so that students could complete the course at all.
Despite all this, I owe Ruskin so much. Ruskin took me from the position of facing Universal Credit and the possibility of homelessness, to a residential college where I could begin to fulfil my potential, to studying for a degree at University College London. I have seen other lives similarly transformed, and I feel so angry that those students had to deal with so many barriers to their education, barriers that would have been minimised had Ruskin’s management not treated staff so shabbily. We desperately need Ruskin to continue, so that the students of the future can have the same opportunity that I had.
Ruskin’s management has swallowed the lie of neoliberalism hook, line and sinker. They have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on management consultants, money that could be spent on staff, students, and building a Ruskin that can stay true to its principles despite the neoliberal onslaught on education. I believe that the destruction of Ruskin is not an inevitable consequence of neoliberalism, but an entirely avoidable result of the policies of the management. The revolving door of staff makes building for the future impossible. Marx’s aphorism ‘All that is solid melts into air’ is apt here: other than a small hardcore of lecturers, who are currently fighting for the future of Ruskin, the transience and impermanence of the rest of the institution’s structures make the fight difficult. Paul Di Felice clearly thinks that transforming Ruskin into a carbon copy of every other FE college fighting it out in the ‘market’ is the answer. It is not. Talks aimed at a merger with other colleges have already taken place this year.
Ruskin belongs, or should belong, to the movement. I have no intention of making this personal, but the only constant in this chaos is the principal, Paul Di Felice. If he cares at all about Ruskin or its students, he should go. The trade union movement needs to come together to make plans to ‘re-found’ Ruskin. Ruskin isn’t just our heritage. It’s our future.
Jo Land is a former student of Ruskin College Oxford. She is an activist and writer, and a former Convenor of Teesside People’s Assembly.
Joanne Land is a founder member and Secretary of 999 Call for the NHS, the group who organised last year's People's March for the NHS, which retraced the steps of the Jarrow Crusade.