Almost 200 academic staff fight against RAE exclusion

Figures show that one in three succeeded in overturning decision, reports Zoe Corbyn

August 7, 2008

At least 190 academics who were told their work would not be submitted to the research assessment exercise mounted a formal challenge against their exclusion, Times Higher Education has discovered.

And about one in three of those who appealed was successful in overturning the decision, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The RAE, a periodic assessment of research quality in university departments, is used to determine more than £1 billion worth of grants each year. Any academic omitted from it is, in effect, branded "research inactive", which can prove a blow to their prestige.

The data, which are not officially collated, were compiled by Times Higher Education using information received from 145 universities. In total, 159 higher education institutions are known to have made RAE submissions.

The show that of at least 190 academics who lodged appeals against exclusion, 58 (30.5 per cent) were upheld. Across the sector, six appeals were taken by individuals beyond universities' RAE appeals procedures and became formal grievances.

It is not known yet how many academics were excluded from this year's exercise. In 2001, more than 32,500 research-active staff (40.4 per cent) were excluded.

The institution to receive the most appeals was Queen's University Belfast, where 37 academics challenged their exclusion. Of these, 11 were upheld, 26 rejected and two proceeded to formal grievance.

Queen's was followed by the University of Glasgow (21 appeals), Swansea University (17), Queen Mary, University of London (15) and Kingston University, which had 11 appeals. The rest of the sector either did not receive any appeals or received mostly only one or two.

This year's RAE is the first in which universities have had to have an internal code of practice for preparing submissions, including selecting staff for inclusion. An appeals provision is standard. Decisions about which staff to include are at the university's discretion, but they need to be defensible and must not contravene equal opportunities legislation.

Reasons for appeal were wide-ranging. They included: claims that the university was not following its own procedures correctly; that due account had not been taken of special personal circumstances such as maternity leave that affected research volume; that research quality had not been judged correctly; and that new evidence of research output had not been originally considered.

Trevor Newsom, director of research at Queen's, said the reason for the relatively high number of appeals there was that the university had been upfront with academics about why they were excluded.

"We made it easy to appeal and that was in keeping with the spirit the Higher Education Funding Council for England had requested," he said.

But Jimmy Donaghey, the local issues secretary of the University and College Union, cited a different reason: "(There was a) lack of transparency in the Queen's RAE selection process and, in some areas, Queen's decision-makers did not use the same weightings for the various measures as will be used by the (RAE) subject panels," he told Times Higher Education.

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said an appeals rate of "less than 2 per cent" testified to the "robustness of its process". He added that a "substantial number" of appeals were upheld because the academics provided evidence that their publications would appear in time for the RAE deadline.

The vice-chancellor of Swansea University, Richard Davies, said a "major factor" behind the number of their appeals was that the university had applied "stricter criteria" than previously, excluding more academics. He said 92 per cent were submitted in 2001 compared with approximately 80 per cent in 2008.

Queen Mary said in a statement that it was "satisfied that the processes used in its RAE decision-making were fair and thorough".

A Kingston University official said that although 11 staff had complained, only two submissions were eligible for consideration and one of those had been upheld.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, said the fact that so few academics had appealed meant they either did not disagree with the judgments or did not think it was worth arguing against.

A spokesman for Universities UK said the low number of appeals suggested that institutions had "robust procedures" in place for selecting staff for inclusion.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said it had lobbied for a "less selective" RAE and would analyse the data on exclusions, particularly in relation to equality issues. "We do not accept that the relatively low numbers (of appeals) vindicates the current system," she said. "Lodging an appeal is a stressful process and a wholly unsatisfactory one for the two thirds of staff who had their appeals rejected."

Five universities with the most appeals
UniversityAppeals lodged under university RAE proceduresAppeals upheldProceeding to formal grievance
Queen’s University Belfast37112
University of Glasgow2180
Swansea University17110
Queen Mary, University of London1530
Kingston University1110
Total across UK university sector190586
The table is complied from FoI requests lodged by Times Higher Education and is based on responses from 145 (of 159) institutions that made submissions to the RAE. The University of Strathclyde was the only institution approached that declined to provide an exact figure for the number of staff who had appealed. It said that the number was “less than five”. Data from Strathclyde are not included in the final appeals figure.

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