Ruskin College is in a state of near collapse after two and half years of gross mismanagement by the Principal. Recruitment to courses is disastrous, administrative and academic processes are in a state of chaos and staff turnover is appalling. On 27th March, Ruskin UCU Branch unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in Principal, Paul di Felice, after two years of attempting to work with him to build the college; 28th March, Lee Humber, membership secretary for the branch circulated the vote of no confidence; 29th March, Lee was suspended—victimised for doing his trade union job!
The Ruskin has a long and proud history of radicalism, in this blog Lee Humber outlines the current struggle, laying emphasis on this proud tradition.
On Saturday 18 May, join the Oxford March for Education and fight for:
● Students before profit
● An end to casualisation
● Stop union-busting at Ruskin College
● Reinstate Lee Humber
There are two Ruskin College Oxfords right now, one represented by a group of no more than four or five clinging to the Principal, Paul Di Felice, the other represented by the rest. The rest number less than 30 permanent staff now after Mr Di Felice’s three year reign of cuts. The rest share an understanding of Ruskin rooted in its founding purpose and tradition. This sees Ruskin as a college for students others have turned their back on, students of any age, potentially without qualifications having been let down by an education system first time around, often from troubled backgrounds of vulnerability – histories of addiction, homelessness, crime. This Ruskin has a proud tradition of working with this cohort of working class students, of using their troubled experiences as part of a learning journey towards academic and professional excellence. Tutors at Ruskin may have differing versions of how to do this such that, shall we say, forthright exchanges of views are common at the college, but we are utterly united in our determination to empower and educate those who come to us.
Alongside and underpinning these collective goals are our undying and guiding belief in the rights of working class people to organise and defend themselves in trade unions. John Ruskin’s overriding aim when he set up the college 120 years ago was to provide a base for trade unionists to study at to develop their intellectual skills the better to serve their class. That belief, in the centrality of trade unionism, is written through the centre of all Ruskin workers like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. All workers, that is, apart from the four or five fellow travellers of Mr Di Felice. Theirs is a very different vision, one of a college rooted in a version of neoliberalist education which is crumbling around them even as they seek to establish it. This is a vision of students and staff as no more than entries on a spread sheet, calculations made with the lives of human beings to maximise profit regardless of the educational consequences of that purpose.
Since Christmas and in the name of ‘student retention’, gone are the internal assessments for access to courses, now records of GCSEs are required immediately excluding traditional elements of our cohort. Gone too is the dedicated learning support service, a service already severely undermined by the last three years of attacks. Instead of providing learning support services in order to enable and retain students, they are excluded before they get here to improve the college’s retention rate percentages. Gone is any notion of quality control, the highly skilled and experienced member of staff responsible for this having been pressured out and his role taken up by an admin department itself down to three or four members of staff. Gone is the synergy between FE and HE elements of the college, this development confirmed in the April when Mr Di Felice de-coupled FE teaching contracts from those of HE in a broader attack on the permanent contracts won by the union in the past. Gone is traditional Ruskin.
Mr Di Felice’s reign of duplicity, intimidation and destruction is too broad and varied to describe here. Full details of it are outlined in the vote of no confidence the Ruskin UCU branch passed in him two days before my own suspension, available on the Ruskin UCU Facebook site. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of his tyranny is the fact that over the past two and half years 85 members of staff have left the college, many specifically blaming Mr Di Felice for their departure in their exit interviews as they have told us. Remaining staff still struggle to comprehend the strategy behind Mr Di Felice’s crimes against the college, if indeed there is one. Is it just incompetence or does he have a plan, we ask? The nearest thing to a plan we can imagine is that Mr Di Felice is running down the college to open the door for a ‘White Knight’ FE college conglomerate, Activate Learning or the Warwickshire group perhaps, to come and gobble up whatever remains – the historic building, the beautiful grounds, the prestigious Oxford location. We’ve noticed that, for some reason, alongside Ruskin College the Activate Learning logo appears on the front page of Mr Di Felice’s LinkedIn page. We continue to speculate. What we are certain of is that he is a union-buster, proven by the attack on our union branch with my suspension as the first open attack and his previous record of victimising union officers at other colleges. That the Principal of Ruskin College Oxford, this year celebrating 120 years as the country’s leading trade union studies provider, should suspend one of its own trade union officers is incredible enough. That it was done with the weakest of weak justification raises incredible to utterly unbelievable.
As I write, five weeks into the dispute and having recieved 14 additional letters regarding my suspension, solicitors for my union are still unclear about exactly what charges are being raised against me. It is completely clear that my suspension was a knee jerk reaction to the vote of no confidence passed in Mr Di Felice by the branch which he has now developed into a full-frontal attack on working contracts and the union. The intimidation of me and the union, carried out by three or four HR consultants taken on since I was excluded from college reached new heights in week five when one of the college’s HR consultants knocked on my front door at 8.30 one night, whilst I was helping get my children to bed, refused to identify herself, threw their latest HR letter onto the floor of my hallway only retreating when I began filming her on my phone. Frankly, it was like a scene from a film of some dystopian future Fascistic society.
So, what does the future hold? One thing is for sure, Ruskin as we knew it, is dead. There can be no return to relations and structures as was. If Mr Di Felice and his tiny band of conspirators have their way the majority feeling is that the college becomes a second-rate FE, or a property opportunity for one of the FE conglomerates. But if the staff prevail, projected forward by the magnificent outpouring of support for them and their victimised membership secretary what then? The experience, dedication and belief in the value of the founding purpose and traditions of the college is capable of anything including, I believe, of re-configuring and strengthening the college. If we continue to work together as a union and as a union movement, drawing on the goodwill and solidarity shown by thousands the length and breadth of the country, we can create the kind of working class, trade union-driven modern version of Ruskin College UK society so desperately needs.
Lee Humber is the author of the forthcoming Pluto Press book Vital Signs: The Deadly Costs of Health Inequality (Pluto, 2019).