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]


5 responses to “Update from Wonderland: the Lancaster History REF farce goes on

  • dparker2013

    Brilliant but when will university historians mount a sustained campaign against the REF ?

  • whyisitalwaysyou

    This is an exceptional blog and one that resonates with me. It is very interesting to note that other academics from different Universities and different disciplines have experienced similar issues. It would seem that for many individuals and even perhaps some UoA’s, the critical friend has effectively ended the game before the race has even started

  • Varsha

    Dear Professor Sayer,

    I am rarely moved to comment on blogs but I could not resist cyber applauding you. I am an Early Career academic and was feeling quite disheartened by the attitude of universities around the time of REF. At times, it felt that universities were almost buying and selling outputs in their hiring procedures and submitting research which they really should not be taking credit for. Also, some of the most inspiring and cutting edge work by one of my senior colleagues was sidelined in favour of quantity and narrowly defined impact. It was also particularly depressing that we, who as teachers in the Humanities want our students to question established hierarchies and protocols, were not putting up a good enough fight. By asking the authorities for explanation in this manner and sowing the seeds for debate, you have restored my faith in the academia somewhat. We need more academics like you!

    • dereksayer

      Thanks Varsha. I couldn’t agree more. It is the younger generation who will pay for the cowardice of today’s senior academics, most of whom have not resisted this hypocritical apology for “evaluation” when they could and should, and some of whom are building administrative careers on the opportunities it offers them to show how “tough” and “unsentimental” they can be. Those who I get really angry for are my PhD students and junior colleagues. I think they have been betrayed by the people who should be setting an example.

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