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.


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