Monthly Archives: October 2013

Lancaster REF appeal: Castle closed, reasons confidential

 

Today—sent by password-encrypted FTP—I received the result of my appeal against inclusion in Lancaster University’s 2014 REF submission.  The original appeal, for those who have not seen it, is available here.

I had intended to post the report of the Dean of Another Faculty on this blog, together with my own comments.  But since both the letter I received from HR notifying me of the outcome of my appeal and the text of the review of my case are prominently marked Confidential, I do not believe I can do so without putting myself at risk of disciplinary proceedings or worse.

I have written to the University seeking clarification as to “how public I [may] make these documents, or their contents, if I so desire … May I publish the Dean’s report on my case in full (with all names removed), which would be my preference?  If not, may I quote it?  Paraphrase or summarize its main arguments?  Refer to it at all?”  I have always been in favor of presenting all sides of an argument.  If I am given permission to do so, I will publish the University’s last word on my appeal in due course. 

In the meantime, we seem to have reached the end of the road.  Here are some final idle musings on some of the anomalies of process I discovered along the way. 

*

According to HEFCE’s Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions for the 2014 REF, “Appropriate and timely procedures should be put in place to inform staff who are not selected of the reasons behind the decision, and for appeals.  Appeals procedures should allow members of staff to appeal after they have received this feedback, and for that appeal to be considered by the HEI before the final selection is made. The individuals that handle appeals should be independent of the decisions about selecting staff and should receive appropriate training” (para. 227, emphasis added).

At Lancaster we cannot appeal actual judgments, on the Kafkan grounds that they are “subjective.”  We may appeal only where there are “any perceived unfair discrimination, concerns about process (including if it is felt that procedure has not been followed) or circumstances where previously unavailable evidence has come to light.”   The Code of Practice then outlines a two-stage process.

In the first instance, “If a member if staff believes that they have appropriate grounds for a complaint they should initially discuss this with their Head of Department, following a request in writing laying out the nature of the concerns. A meeting should take place within 10 days of the request and the outcome followed up within 7 days of the meeting. The Head of Department may consult with the Associate Dean for Research in their faculty as part of their consideration of the appeal” (LU REF2014 Code of Practice).

First, it is by no means clear that the HoD has the power to overturn an initial decision to include/exclude an individual member of staff—a decision made, if we are to believe the Code of Practice, by “the Vice-Chancellor on the advice of the REF Steering Group,” that is to say, people far superior to her/him in the university hierarchy.  If there has been a single instance of an HoD overriding the VC’s inclusion/exclusion decisions, I would be delighted to hear of it.  Absent such evidence, it is very difficult not to conclude that this is not a proper appeal, understood as something that can actually change an outcome, at all.

Second, neither the HoD nor, in particular, the Associate Dean for Research, can reasonably be said to have been “independent of the original decisions about selecting staff” for the REF.  Not only have both been involved in the regular “phase meetings” that plotted individuals’ outputs and their evaluations from 2011 onward.  According to my HoD, “the basis on which external assessors [for individuals’ research outputs] were chosen was  … in consultation between the HoD and Research Director, and the Dean and Associate Dean for Research.”

The Associate Dean for Research is in addition ex officio a member of the REF Steering Group itself, whose Terms of Reference include: “To recommend to the Vice-Chancellor for final confirmation to which units of assessment Lancaster should submit, and the content of each unit’s submission, including the staff selected” (LU Code of Practice, Appendix 1).  If HEFCE’s principles of independence of appeal panels are to be adhered to, he is the last person with whom an HoD should be consulting in this context.

The second, and final, stage of appeal is this: “Any staff member remaining dissatisfied [with the HoD’s response], should submit formal written notification to the Director of Human Resources within 5 working days of receiving the decision of the original panel, requesting their case be reviewed by a Dean of another faculty” (LU Code of Practice).

Faculty Deans are not members of the REF Steering Group, hence they may be regarded as “independent” by those of a similar disposition to the courtiers in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Emperor’s new clothes.  In practice, however—as I have repeatedly argued in earlier posts—Deans have been at the very center of preparation of REF submissions, including recommending “to which units of assessment Lancaster should submit, and the content of each unit’s submission, including the staff selected,” within their own faculties.  This is surely what common sense would expect of a Dean.  However, it is not consistent with a claim of “independence,” as HEFCE explicitly requires of those hearing appeals.

This becomes particularly important when, as in my own case, what is being appealed against are the procedures used by the University as a whole to select staff for inclusion in its 2014 REF submission.  Insofar as the University has a consistent policy (which HEFCE requires it to do), these are the same procedures Deans will be applying within their own faculties and­ to their own staff, albeit with some variation across disciplines.  Faculty Deans are therefore not in any sense disinterested parties.  It is difficult to conceive of any group within the university that has a greater collective stake in seeing such an appeal fail.

This is a fair appeals process in the same sense as what preceded it was a fair process for judging the academic quality of research outputs.  For me, this reductio ad absurdum is a fitting epitaph for the whole sorry Lancaster REF selection process.  Happy Halloween!

For update see here.


I don’t know just where I’m going/But I’m goin’ to try for the kingdom if I can

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Lancaster response to REF appeal: All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds

On October 15 I received an email from my Head of Department informing me that “Your appeal against REF inclusion has been discussed, and I have been mandated as HoD to send a response, which is attached.  The next stage, if you are not satisfied with the response, is to contact the Head of HR to ask for a review of the case to be heard by the Dean of another Faculty.

The HoD did not say by whom my appeal had been discussed, but his use of the bureaucratic passive suggests to me that the responsibility for the contents of the response is not his alone, even though it is delivered under his signature.  I was not surprised to learn that in the University’s view “There are … no grounds for upholding the appeal of Professor Sayer against REF inclusion.

The document was not marked confidential.  In the interests of transparency and fair play to all concerned, I am making both the HoD’s response and my reply (which will form part of the evidence submitted in the review of the case by the Dean of another Faculty) public.

These texts may not make the lightest of reading, but there is much in them to reward aficionados of Kafkan humour noir.   They might also entertain lovers of the old BBC TV series “Yes, Minister.”

I have already posted the text of my original appeal here.  The new documents may be found here:

Head of Department’s response to my appeal against inclusion in the REF

My reply to HoD’s response

 

The only alterations I have made to either document is to remove the names of individuals.

*

I have only one general observation to make at this stage.  In the course of rebutting my charge of inconsistent treatment of colleagues within History, my HoD describes the process eventually used to select individuals for the Lancaster’s REF submission as follows:

“all outputs would be read and evaluated by the critical friend, and … in given sets of circumstances further readings and evaluations by subject specialists may be commissioned, for example, where the critical friend had specifically recommended this on the grounds of his own uncertainty about an evaluation, or where an overall profile fell on a borderline. Since not all initial evaluations by the critical friend necessitated, in his view, further subject specialist evaluation, this option was not pursued in all cases.”

In other words, in all cases except those where the Critical Friend recommended it or aggregate scores fell on a borderline, there was no specialist quality appraisal for any outputs except those that happened to fall within that Critical Friend’s own field of academic expertise.  The latter would be a small minority, given the chronological, geographic, and thematic range of research published by members of the Department.

Does Lancaster really think such processes of “evaluating” academic research are consistent with a claim to be “a truly world leading university in which we perform at the leading edge of academic endeavour” (Lancaster University website)?


More REF: Warwick University Limited?

Though some UK universities are playing by the rules in preparing their submissions for REF 2014 and treating their academic staff with respect and decency, Lancaster seems not to be alone in employing procedures to select staff for its REF submission that satisfy neither HEFCE’s own Guidelines for the REF nor the established norms of academic peer review.

This morning I received an email from Warwick University UCU, informing me of a recent survey of Warwick staff who were being excluded from the REF, and requesting that I publicize their document on my blog.  I am happy to do so.

 

Warwick survey shows REF rules being bypassed and selection guidelines ignored

Much good research excluded; Interdisciplinary research sidelined; Academics left in limbo

Warwick UCU has conducted a survey of all its members to ask if they had received a letter from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor informing them that they were to be excluded from the REF. Forty-four members replied, the largest response we have received to any of our surveys. (We also received responses from some members who had recently been moved to teaching-only contracts who are no longer eligible.)

We wanted to know the grounds on which they were excluded, the process by which the decision had been made and what the implications would be for them and for research within the university going forward. Above all we wanted to see if the guidelines and principles of the national Research Excellence Framework and Warwick’s own Code of Practice are in fact being upheld.

Main findings in brief:

• The majority of respondents are excluded on ‘quality’ grounds, meaning they have enough submissible research but the university judged it to be below some threshold (e.g. for some individuals/departments an ‘average’ of 3*, and for others 3.5*)

• Selection criteria are not transparent, are applied inconsistently and with little regard to inclusivity – in contravention of the stated REF principles.

• A small number of members have been granted a right of appeal on substantive, academic grounds (despite the university having said that it would only hear appeals within the context of Equality Legislation) and been reinstated.

• Research is often excluded on the subjective judgement of heads of department without having been independently appraised by experts external to the university, and in some cases, externals were asked to ‘confirm’ HoDs’ assessments, not to read and assess the work independently.

• Some research is excluded purely on ‘strategic grounds’.

• Interdisciplinary research is being excluded without proper appraisal: it seems to be routinely described as ‘below the standard required in terms of quality’.

• Some academics complain that the university would rather exclude them than ask for their research outputs to be cross-referred to a different REF panel.

• Many members are unclear as to the consequences of exclusion for their careers. They are unsure if they are in good standing or not.

THE FULL WARWICK UCU DOCUMENT CAN BE FOUND HERE.


Getting nasty: Lancaster demands I censor my REF posts

I today received an email from Trevor McMillan, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Lancaster University, asking that I “address two very serious issues” connected with my previous posts about Lancaster’s selection of History staff for the 2014 REF on this blog.  The letter was not marked confidential.

Professor McMillan is concerned, first, that the identity of History’s Critical Friend “has been easily deducible from the information I have posted online.” He asks that I “modify the text online to remove this possibility and also write to Professor ________ to apologise for what has been posted.”

As Professor McMillan very well knows, the “removal of the relevant text from my blog” for which he asks will seriously weaken the presentation of the procedural issues at stake in my appeal, to the undoubted advantage of the University in what has become an increasingly public debate.

Two key arguments in my case are (1) that the professional experience that led the History Department to invite Professor ________ to become its Critical Friend did not qualify him for the role he came subsequently to occupy in Lancaster History’s REF process; specifically, (2) that Professor ________ ‘s particular field of academic expertise did not qualify him to make judgments of the “originality, rigor and significance” of many colleagues’ outputs within the Department, including my own.  Since these judgments played a key part in the University’s selection of staff for submission in the REF, Lancaster’s procedures did not meet HEFCE’s requirements.

Professor McMillan demands I now remove from my blog (1) my description of Professor ________ ‘s area of expertise together with (2) any reference to the professional experience that led us to invite him to become our Critical Friend in the first place, in the interests of maintaining his anonymity.  My case will thereby lose much of its evidential support.  I am permitted to make generic arguments, but not to publish the facts on which they rest.

This is an excellent example of how what Paolo Palladino, in his original Open Letter, referred to as the “culture of secrecy” surrounding the REF at Lancaster works to suppress free discussion and dissent.

I shall remove “the relevant text” from my blog, but only because I shall lay myself to disciplinary action for disregarding the direct instructions of a superior if I do not.  I am also happy to write to Professor ________ explaining my actions, but not to apologize for them.  To apologize would constitute an admission of a liability that I do not accept.

The second issue that concerns Professor McMillan is this:

Your implied comparison online of compliance with the REF process and attitudes to the Holocaust has caused some great distress among a number of your colleagues at Lancaster.  While we clearly support academic freedom for our staff I hope that you will see that this cannot go so far as real upset caused to colleagues and therefore this warrants the removal of the relevant text from your blog.

For those interested, the full text of the post concerned can be found here.

I did not “compare the REF to the Holocaust.”  The specific problem I raised was explaining how individuals involved in administering the REF are prepared to engage in actions that may damage the reputations and careers of colleagues, even though they know that the processes of evaluation involved are far less rigorous than those normally used in academia.  This might be seen as an instance of a more general problem of how ordinary decent folks sometimes do extraordinary and indecent things when required or empowered to do so by the bureaucratic organizations for whom they work.

I cited a number of classic studies (Weber, Foucault, Havel) in the sociological literature that variously address this problem.  I could have mentioned others: the Milgram experiments, for instance, in which randomly-selected subjects showed themselves willing to administer powerful doses of electric shock to fellow human beings when reassured by people in white coats that it was OK to do so, or Adorno and Horkheimer’s Authoritarian Personality.  Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust is a pivotal work in this tradition, and is seen as a seminal contribution to the field precisely because of the way it brings out the connections between the extreme evil of the Holocaust and the everyday routines and expectations of modern bureaucracies—like, in this case, universities.

Since I doubt Professor McMillan—or, possibly, some of those who claim to have been caused “great distress” by my reference to Modernity and the Holocaust—will find the time, as the REF cull at Lancaster nears its conclusion, to read one of the great classics of contemporary sociology, let me give you Wikipedia’s summary of Bauman’s argument:

Drawing upon Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno’s books on totalitarianism and the Enlightenment, Bauman developed the argument that the Holocaust should not simply be considered to be an event in Jewish history, nor a regression to pre-modern barbarism. Rather, he argued, the Holocaust should be seen as deeply connected to modernity and its order-making efforts.  Procedural rationality, the division of labour into smaller and smaller tasks, the taxonomic categorisation of different species, and the tendency to view rule-following as morally good all played their role in the Holocaust coming to pass.  And he argued that for this reason modern societies have not fully taken on board the lessons of the Holocaust; it is generally viewed—to use Bauman’s metaphor—like a picture hanging on a wall, offering few lessons.

I am not going to be intimidated out of applying the analysis of bureaucracy and conformity developed in the discipline in which I was trained, sociology, to my own workplace, or to the REF more generally.  I do not regard the fact that people claim to have been “upset” by my reference to Bauman as sufficient reason to remove the reference from the blog, as Professor McMillan demands.  It is a wholly unwarranted intrusion into the academic freedom to which all Lancaster University employees should be entitled.  I will therefore not remove or amend this post.

Let me finally say that several of my colleagues at Lancaster have also been caused “great distress” by their exclusion from University’s submission to the 2014 REF.  They have ample reason for feeling “real upset.”  As I put it in an earlier post on this blog,

I find it poignant that so cavalier an attitude toward evaluating the research of colleagues should be adopted in a university that requires external examiners for PhDs to be “an experienced member of another university qualified … to assess the thesis within its own field” and—unlike in North America—also requires all undergraduate work to be both second-marked internally and open to inspection by an external examiner before it can count toward a degree.   Why are those whose very livelihood depends on their research—and its reputation for quality—not given at least equivalent consideration as the students they teach?

I understand why the University might prefer discussion to focus on my alleged breaches of confidentiality and upsetting of colleagues rather than its own lamentably inadequate REF procedures.  But does Professor McMillan really want to go on record as saying that “academic freedom for our staff … cannot go so far as real upset caused to colleagues,” while at the same time maintaining that the freedom of administrators to evaluate people’s research in the way Lancaster has in History–with all its demonstrably distressing effects for individuals who are excluded from the REF as a consequence–should be above public debate or criticism?


Lancaster’s REF: Stockholm syndrome or worse?

A reader of my blogpost “Update from Wonderland: the Lancaster REF farce goes on” commented: “Brilliant but when will university historians mount a sustained campaign against the REF?”  Many who have commented on this and my earlier post “Kafkarna continues: REF gloves off at Lancaster University” on Twitter and other social media have voiced the same concern.  Why has there been so little resistance, at Lancaster or elsewhere, to an enterprise that makes a mockery of the values universities are meant to stand for?  Several have gone so far as to liken British academics’ collective acceptance of the REF exercise to Stockholm syndrome.    

I am not especially puzzled at colleagues’ reluctance to publicly resist a process many of them despise but feel they can do little about. Fear is a powerful disincentive to action, and British academics do not enjoy the protections of tenure (which was legislated away under Margaret Thatcher).  What does bother me, however, is the apparent willingness of many of those involved in the administration of the REF to participate in and vigorously defend an exercise they know will damage the reputations of colleagues, even if they are fully aware that the evaluative mechanisms used in their internal processes for selection of staff for entry into the REF are far less rigorous than those routinely used in academia (in peer review for journals, research grant funding competitions, or promotion appraisals, for instance).  

How to explain this willingness to throw one’s colleagues to the wolves, in some cases obviously relishing the sense of self-importance that comes with the power to do it?  Max Weber’s classic studies of how bureaucracy works “without regard for persons” might provide one starting-point; Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust another.  We might invoke Michel Foucault’s analyses of power and subjectivity.  But the text that goes to the heart of the matter, for me, is Václav Havel’s parable of the compliant Prague greengrocer.

*   *   *

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high.  […]

[T]he real meaning of the greengrocer’s slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar: the greengrocer declares his loyalty (and he can do no other if his declaration is to be accepted) in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.

Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless” (1978), translated by Paul Wilson


Where the North Sea Touches Alabama

I’m sick of blogging about the self-important, pompous, and utterly provincial British REF (“Research Excellence Framework’).  Enough miserablism  (André Breton), at least for today.

Instead, I would like to celebrate the October publication by Chicago University Press of Allen C. Shelton’s Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, the follow-up to his widely praised Dreamworlds of Alabama (Minnesota UP, 2007).

I have known Allen since he first invited me, over ten years ago now, to participate in the remarkable festival of arts and ideas he organized annually on a shoestring budget in Buffalo, NY under the Benjaminian title Ethnographic Dreamworlds.  Some of the richness of those meetings, which brought together intellectuals across disciplines, performers, and visual artists, can be gleaned from the soft arcades website that survives as a ghostly record of an extraordinarily vibrant event.

It was through Allen and Ethnographic Dreamworlds that I met, among others, Kathleen Stewart, Patricia Clough, Danielle Egan, and Susan Lepselter—scholars doing courageous and pioneering work that make the standard disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and social sciences seem no more than quaint and rather incomprehensible antiques.  Allen was kind enough to visit Lancaster University last year as a participant in a cross-disciplinary writing workshop for PhD students, on whom he left a lasting impression.

This is what others are saying about Where the North Sea Touches Alabama:

Kathleen C. Stewart, author of Ordinary Affects

“This is a beautiful and brilliant book. . . . The lives of Allen Shelton, Patrik Keim, Walter Benjamin, and many others intersect in these pages, rubbing up against each other, drawing on each other to evoke layers on layers of worlds in which objects, color, and texture are everything. Shelton’s writing is masterful.”

Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto

“Allen C. Shelton is really special. From the layering and subtlety of his writing to his sense of geography, intimacy, and sensuous detail, I don’t know anyone who writes quite like him. These interwoven narratives of the dead and the living form a boundary-crossing work of worlding, a productive new type of critical engagement; Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is not just a remarkable book, but a fresh genre of writing.”

Howard S. Becker, author of Art Worlds

“Allen C. Shelton is a provocative writer whose prose grapples with a lot of ideas we don’t usually allow ourselves to think about. Readers will have to think hard, but their efforts will pay off in new knowledge and insight: I felt that I knew a whole lot more after reading his book than I did before and I don’t often feel that way, nor feel that way so strongly.”

Jonathan Fullmer | Booklist

“Dense, wildly digressive, and divided into topical microchapters that cite more than 100 endnotes sometimes only loosely connected to the text, Shelton’s singular blend of art-, lit-, and pop-infused intellectualism may not draw a wide readership, but those who enter will find an invigorating analysis of death, art, friendship, and self-discovery.”

Luis Jaramillo | The Coffin Factory

“The sometimes abrupt shifts in subject matter make this a book that has to be read slowly to take in Shelton’s arguments. Fortunately this close reading is rewarded, especially in the moments when Shelton moves from more analytical passages to personal reflections, synthesizing the theories he’s discussing. . . . What makes this book so strangely wonderful is how Shelton moves from the abstract to the personal.”

Check it out here.

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Update from Wonderland: the Lancaster History REF farce goes on

Update, October 16.  I have censored this post at the insistence of Professor Trevor McMillan, Pro Vice-Chancellor (research) at Lancaster University.  I indicate passages that have been altered or removed by angle brackets <>.

Since my last post on Lancaster University’s selection of History staff for inclusion in the 2014 REF, another case has come to light that is no less absurd–and troubling–than Professor Palladino’s.  After reading and evaluation of his four research outputs by the Department’s external assessor, another of my colleagues had an aggregate score of 2.75 (3 x 3 and 1 x 2).  He was nonetheless excluded from the REF as a result of one of his articles being re-read by a second external reader and given a lower grade of 2*.  The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at that point refused to commission a further specialist review.

What is particularly troubling is that the article in question was published in Past and Present, which is regarded by most UK historians as one of the top historical journals, if not the leading historical journal in the English language.  My colleague had also been urged by the editor of a major specialist journal in his field to withdraw the article from Past and Present (who had not at that point definitively accepted it), with the promise that it would be published quickly as a lead article in this second journal, where it would form the centerpiece of a themed issue.  Once again the subjective judgments of University-appointed assessors have trumped the peer evaluations (in this case three) commissioned by distinguished professional journals.

My colleague is now appealing the decision, which is why I have kept his name anonymous (though I am posting this information with his permission).  But appeals are permitted only on procedural grounds—one cannot appeal the judgment of quality as such.  As I pointed out in an earlier post, the truly Kafkan reasoning behind this is that (to quote Lancaster University’s Code of Conduct for the 2014 REF): “The judgements are subjective, based on factual information. Hence, disagreement with the decision alone would not be appropriate grounds for an appeal.”

In the surreal spirit of the enterprise, but with the intent of questioning Lancaster University’s procedures for selecting History staff for the 2014 REF, I decided to submit a formal appeal of my own.  The appeal is against my being selected as part of the History Unit of Assessment (UoA) in the 2014 REF.

Here is the full text of my appeal.  The only change from the version sent to the Director of Human Resources at Lancaster is that I have removed names of individuals, except where I am quoting from already published material.

 

 

 REF 2014: APPEAL

1.  I wish to appeal against Lancaster University’s decision to include me as part of the History UoA in its 2014 REF submission.

2.  This is not an appeal against the judgments of quality of my four outputs, on whose basis this decision was taken.  It therefore does not fall foul of the requirement that “disagreement with the decision alone would not be appropriate grounds for an appeal” (LANCASTER UNIVERSITY REF 2014: Code of Practice V5 27 September 2013, p. 5).[1]

3.  This appeal is based exclusively upon “concerns about process,” one of the two grounds permitted by LU Code of Practice (p. 5).   These concerns are:

(i) that the procedures used to select staff for inclusion in the Lancaster University History UoA for the 2014 REF do not satisfy the criteria set out by HEFCE in its document Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions[2] in respect of either transparency or accountability;

(ii) that the procedures used for assessing my own work for inclusion in the 2014 REF were incompatible with LU Code of Conduct‘s objective of ensuring that “The primary factor [in selection] will be the quality of the research outputs as defined by the published REF criteria contained in the Guidance on Submission and Panel Criteria documents” (p. 2); and

(iii) that the procedures used in assessing the quality of my own work for inclusion in the 2014 REF were de facto discriminatory toward several of my colleagues in History, who are not being returned in the REF, breaching HEFCE requirements of equality, fairness, and consistency.

I outline these concerns more fully under (4), (5) and (6) below, respectively.

4.  HEFCE’s Assessment Framework and Guidance makes clear that while “It is a requirement of the REF that each submitting institution establishes a code of practice on the selection of staff for REF submissions … It is the responsibility of HEIs to ensure that their codes of practice, and the manner in which they participate in the REF, are lawful” (39).

I am aware that LU Code of Practice was submitted to and approved by HEFCE.  I believe, however, that the actual implementation of this code, at least as regards the History UoA, has not conformed to HEFCE’s requirements.

Specifically:

204.  a. Transparency: All processes for the selection of staff for inclusion in REF submissions should be transparent. Codes of practice should be drawn up and made available in an easily accessible format and publicised to all academic staff across the institution, including on the staff intranet, and drawn to the attention of those absent from work. We would expect there to be a programme of communication activity to disseminate the code of practice and explain the processes related to selection of staff for submission. This should be documented in the code (Assessment Framework and Guidance, p. 39).

While the LU Code of Practice was made available on the University intranet, that document contained only the most general account of the “processes for the selection of staff for inclusion in the REF.”  It is my contention that the processes actually employed in the case of the History UoA were anything but transparent.

Specifically, History staff knew that their four outputs would be read by the Department’s external assessor Professor ___________ , and that his evaluation would in some (unspecified) way feed into the University’s final decisions on inclusion and exclusion.  Individuals were also informed that their work might be sent out for further, specialist readings.

But History staff were not told, at least until the final decision on inclusion was communicated to them by the HoD in September 2013:

(i) the scores Professor _______ had given their individual outputs;[3]

(ii) the circumstances that would trigger a second reading of their work, or a “re-review” by an independent specialist of an item already read and scored by Professor _______ ;

(iii) the basis on which external assessors (other than Professor _______ , <removed>) were chosen, or who was responsible for selecting them;

(iv) the overall aggregate score needed to qualify for inclusion in the University’s submission to the 2014 REF.

When I asked my HoD to tell me where information on the specific evaluative procedures used with regard to selection of staff for the History UoA had been published on the University website, I was told: “As far as I’m aware, the evaluative procedures for arriving at decisions have not been published on the website, and in any case they will differ from Faculty to Faculty and department to department” (email from [HoD] , 3 October 2013).

In short, several key elements of the evaluative procedures that determined whether or not individuals were included in the 2014 REF submission were not transparent, and were never clearly communicated to the staff concerned.

This in turn makes it difficult to appeal the University’s decisions: Lancaster has constructed a Kafkan scenario in which grounds for appeal include “concerns about process (including if it is felt that procedure has not been followed),” but one cannot know whether or not procedures have been followed if the procedures concerned have not been clearly communicated in advance.

204. c. Accountability: Responsibilities should be clearly defined, and individuals and bodies that are involved in selecting staff for REF submissions should be identified by name or role … Operating criteria and terms of reference for individuals, committees, advisory groups and any other bodies concerned with staff selection should be made readily available to all individuals and groups concerned (Assessment Framework and Guidance, p. 39, emphasis added).

The LU Code of Practice says that “selection decisions regarding the University submission to the REF will lie with the Vice-Chancellor on the advice of the REFSG,” whose membership the document details.   While I accept that this may be the formal legal position, it is not a complete or accurate description of what has actually happened.  I dispute that these are the only individuals or bodies at Lancaster University “involved in selecting staff for REF submissions.”  Others who have been involved, at various stages of the process, include Heads of Department, Departmental Research Directors, Associate Deans for Research, Faculty Deans, and external assessors.  Though none of these may be formally responsible for the final decisions on inclusion or exclusion, their inputs have contributed to those decisions.  In the case of external assessors who read and scored individual outputs, that contribution may often have been decisive.

When I was HoD for History (2009-2012) I sat on what were in effect ad hoc committees involved in the early stages of making recommendations—though not final decisions—for selection of staff for the 2014 REF for both History and the Department of European Languages and Cultures.  In the case of History, the relevant meetings involved, at various points, the Dean of FASS _______ , the Associate Dean Professor _______ , the History Department Research Director _______ , and the external assessor Professor _______ .  In the case of DELC, I was personally asked by the Dean, Professor _______ , to assess DELC staff members’ outputs as an “internal/external” reader.  The context was the need for FASS to take a strategic decision or whether or not DELC should be entered in the 2014 REF as an independent UoA.  So far as I recall, also present at that meeting were Dean _______ , [the FASS AD for Research], the DELC HoD _______ , the DELC Research Director _______ , and DELC’s external assessor, whose name I no longer recall.

I respectfully submit that (i) these were “bodies involved in selecting staff for REF submissions” in the sense intended by HEFCE paragraph 204c above, and (ii) their operating criteria and terms of reference were not “made readily available to all individuals and groups concerned.”

Specifically, these advisory groupings, whose recommendations will have formed the initial Department- and Faculty-level bases for the decisions on individual inclusion or exclusion by the central REF Steering Group and V-C, did not satisfy HEFCE’s requirements that:

209. Where a committee or committees have designated REF responsibilities – whether it is at departmental, faculty, UOA or central level – these should be detailed in the code of practice, including, for each committee:

• how the committee has been formed

• its membership

• the definition of its position within the advisory or decision-making process  …

210. The following details should be provided about its mode of operation:

• the criteria that it will use in carrying out its functions …

(Assessment Framework and Guidance, p. 40, emphasis added).

To my knowledge such bodies have no formal standing in the process at all, though their recommendations may well turn out to be decisive for individual members of staff.  They are likely to have been the most important decision-making bodies in all cases where department-level initial readings of outputs yielded a score sufficient for inclusion, a category into which my own case falls.  These bodies are not detailed anywhere in LU Code of Practice (as the Assessment Framework and Guidance para 209 requires), nor are their existence, composition, terms of reference, or operating criteria publicized on the intranet.

In short, the LU Code of Practice that was endorsed by HEFCE does not sufficiently describe the processes of staff selection for REF 2014 that have actually been used—at least with regard to the History UoA—at Lancaster University, while the processes that have actually been used to select individuals do not satisfy HEFCE’s stated criteria for either transparency or accountability.

5.  HEFCE’s Assessment Framework and Guidance is clear that: “The purpose of the guidance in Part 4 is to support institutions in promoting equality and diversity when preparing submissions to the REF, through drawing up and implementing a code of practice on the fair and transparent selection of staff. This will aid institutions in including all their eligible staff in submissions who are conducting excellent research, as well as promoting equality, complying with legislation and avoiding discrimination” (para. 187, p. 34, emphasis added).

I draw two inferences from this:

(i) HEFCE very clearly does not intend institutions to exclude any “eligible staff … who are conducting excellent research” from their submissions;

(ii) institutions’ procedures for deciding which staff are included in or excluded from submission in REF 2014 must be capable of judging whether outputs do or do not in fact constitute “excellent research,” as well as of satisfying HEFCE’s concerns regarding the separate issue of “promoting equality, complying with legislation and avoiding discrimination.”

Lancaster University likewise claims that: “”The primary factor [in selection of staff for the 2014 REF] will be the quality of the research outputs as defined by the published REF criteria contained in the Guidance on Submission and Panel Criteria documents” (LU Code of Conduct, p. 2).  Again, the logical expectation would be that its procedures for judging quality of outputs are fit for purpose.

I believe that the procedures applied within History at Lancaster University are manifestly not capable of judging the excellence or otherwise of my four outputs, and that my inclusion in the REF, without further specialist review of my work, is therefore contrary both to HEFCE Assessment Framework and Guidance and to the LU Code of Conduct as quoted above.

“Excellent research” has a very precise meaning within the discourse of REF 2014.  The word “excellent” is used only in connection with items ranked as 4* (“Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour”) and 3* (“Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence”) (Assessment Framework and Guidance, Annex A, p. 43).  The specific criteria used to judge a work’s degree of excellence are originality, rigor, and significance.

On inquiring of my Head of Department whether my four outputs were read and evaluated by anybody other than the History UoA’s external assessor Professor _______ , I was informed that: “my understanding is that in your case all four outputs were evaluated only by [Professor _______] – I’m not aware of any being sent out for additional review” (email from [HoD], 3 October 2013).

I have the utmost respect for Professor _______ , who in my experience as HoD did his job as a Critical Friend with the utmost integrity and conscientiousness.  He is, however, a historian whose interests and expertise are very far from my own.  His website defines his research interests as <removed in order to preserve the reviewer’s anonymity>”[4]  I do not believe that he is remotely qualified to judge the excellence or otherwise of my research.  I write about none of the things in which he claims a research interest and has a record of publication.  I research twentieth-century history, not <removed>; Czech history, not <removed>; modernism and surrealism, with a particular focus on architecture and the visual arts, not <removed>.  My primary sources are all in Czech and French, languages Professor _______ does not read—as is much of the secondary discussion in the field.  I do not see how Professor _______ can be expected to evaluate the originality, rigor, and significance of my research if he has little or no knowledge of the fields to which it contributes.  Frankly, this is absurd!

Professor _______ is not qualified to evaluate the quality of my contributions to a field of historical inquiry so distant from his own, let alone make the necessarily fine distinctions that separate a 3* from a 2* output (the latter being defined as “Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour,” Assessment Framework and Guidance, Annex A, p. 43).  He would not be asked to evaluate these items as an expert reviewer for a journal or publishing house, or in connection with tenure or promotion proceedings, not because he is not an eminent historian, but because his expertise lies in a very different area of the discipline.  His appointment as the single external assessor for the entire History UoA at Lancaster University is in contradiction with all normal professional norms of peer assessment and review.  Since Professor _______ is the only one to have read my work for REF purposes, I therefore submit that the procedures used by Lancaster University to evaluate that work, on the basis of which I am being submitting in REF 2014, are not consistent with HEFCE’s stated objective of ensuring that universities include “all their eligible staff in submissions who are conducting excellent research.”

After I learned I was to be included in the REF submission, I wrote my HoD with the following request: “In the interests of upholding the integrity of this process of quality evaluation, as well as of ensuring equitable treatment between colleagues, I would like formally to request that my outputs be sent out for further appraisal by subject-matter experts before I am submitted in the 2014 REF” (email to [HoD], 30 September 2013).  I received the following response: “I can see why you are asking for this, but I am afraid that it is no longer in my power to comply with your request for specialist reading of your work. The REF process is now at a stage where appeals on procedural grounds can be made, but not on any other grounds, and I have therefore been advised to decline your request” (email from [HoD], 2 October 2013).  Further communication with my HoD established that “Even before I opened your email of 30th Sept I had already been received messages from the Dean, AD Research and Pro VC for Research advising me that there was no longer any option for specialist reading of any work” (email of 3 October 2013).  That is to say, Lancaster University has closed the possibility of further specialist readings of work even before the deadline for making appeals (October 8) has expired.

It is worth noting, finally, that Lancaster University senior managers have admitted the inadequacy of the procedures that were eventually used to evaluate my work for inclusion in the REF.  Writing at an earlier stage of the process, the Associate Dean (Research) for the Faculty of Science and Technology accepted that “some weaknesses in the mock REF exercise are apparent, for example in many cases there was only one external reviewer per department, no doubt with expert knowledge but not in all the relevant areas” (Michael Koch, “In preparation for REF2014 – Mock REF and Units of Assessment,” SciTech Bulletin #125).[5]  This was exactly my case, and forms part of the basis of this appeal.  HEFCE expressed the hope that: “Institutions that conduct mock REF exercises might consider using them as an opportunity to apply their draft code and refine it further” (Assessment Framework and Guidance, para 203, p. 39).  Evidently in this case Lancaster, or at least FASS, chose to ignore that very sensible advice.

6.  HEFCE’s Assessment Framework and Guidance enshrines both a repeatedly stated commitment to “equality and diversity” and “fairness” (see e.g. para 187), and a specific requirement of:

204.  b. Consistency: It is essential that policy in respect of staff selection is consistent across the institution and that the code of practice is implemented uniformly (Assessment Framework and Guidance, p. 39).

I do not know how consistent staff selection procedures within History are with those used for other UoA’s, because as stated above, the procedures employed at individual UoA level have never been made public.  Within the History UoA, however, staff members have not been treated equally.  While some, like myself, have been included in the 2014 REF submission on the basis of one external reading of all outputs (i.e., Professor _______’s)—even when that reading has not been by an expert in the relevant field—others have had some or all items of their work additionally read by further external assessors.   Since these assessors are claimed to be field specialists, one might expect them to set the bar higher in terms of their ability to recognize originality, rigor, and significance.  In some cases this second reading has involved outputs that were originally given a grade by Professor _______ being downgraded, with (in at least two cases known to me) the staff member being excluded from the REF submission as a direct result.  I submit that this is inequitable insofar as some members of staff within the same UoA have been subjected to double or triple jeopardy and others not.

This might be justifiable, had clear criteria governing when outputs are sent out for further specialist evaluation been articulated and published in advance.  They were not.  From what I can glean from what I have been told by colleagues who have been excluded from the REF, the circumstances in which second readings have been sought include (but may not be limited to):

(i) where the external assessor, Professor _______ , himself expressed doubts as to his competence to evaluate an output in a field with which he is not familiar; and

(ii) where the aggregate score of all four outputs left the individual on a borderline in terms of the University’s (as yet unpublished) threshold for inclusion in the History UoA.

Since I fell into neither of these categories, assessment of my outputs was much less rigorous than that of several of my colleagues.  My outputs were read by only one external reviewer, as opposed to two or more, and that reviewer was not a subject matter specialist.

This is not consistent treatment of Lancaster University staff, nor is it by any reasonable standards fair to the colleagues in question.  Nor does it encourage representation of “diversity” of research within the Department, since the opinion of one individual, the external assessor, Professor _______ , plays a disproportionate role in determining who is or is not included in Lancaster University’s History UoA as submitted to the 2014 REF.

Derek Sayer

3 October 2013


[1] http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/depts/research/lancaster/REF2014.html, accessed 1 October 2013.  Subsequently cited as LU Code of Practice.

[2] Assessment framework and guidance on submissions (updated to include addendum published in January 2012), available at http://www.ref.ac.uk/media/ref/content/pub/assessmentframeworkandguidanceonsubmissions/GOS%20including%20addendum.pdf, accessed 1 October 2013.  Subsequently cited as Assessment Framework and Guidance.

[3] As then Head of Department, responsible for communicating to staff where they stood in terms of likelihood of being submitted in the 2014 REF in January 2012, I was repeatedly told by the History Research Director (who was acting, I assume, on instructions from above) that these scores should be kept confidential and not communicated to the staff involved.

[4]