Lancaster historian appeals against his inclusion in REF

Scholar hopes his ‘surreal’ action will show that excluded colleagues were ‘discriminated’ against

October 31, 2013

Source: Derek Sayer

Change of focus: Derek Sayer is challenging the REF process by appealing against the inclusion of his research

A Lancaster University professor has launched a “surreal” appeal against inclusion in his department’s research excellence framework submission, in an attempt to argue that excluded colleagues have been “discriminated” against.

While those excluded from the REF – the census date for which is 31 October – are the more usual sources of complaint, Derek Sayer disagrees with the process that led to his inclusion.

In a series of postings on his blog, Professor Sayer, former head of Lancaster’s history department, says the process breaches Higher Education Funding Council for England guidelines regarding transparency and accountability. He also claims it contravenes Hefce’s injunction to include “all eligible staff in submissions who are conducting excellent research”.

Professor Sayer objected to the exclusion of a colleague and decided to appeal against his own inclusion “in the surreal spirit of the enterprise”. He has told Lancaster 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”.

Professor Sayer bases his argument on the claim that selection has been primarily based on the assessment of potential submissions by a “critical friend” of his department – a history professor from another institution – who he believes lacks the necessary experience and the specialist knowledge required in many of the areas in which the Lancaster historians publish.

Professor Sayer notes that Lancaster “requires external examiners for PhDs to be ‘an experienced member of another university qualified…to assess the thesis within its own field’ and 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 livelihood depends on their research – and its reputation for quality – not given at least equivalent consideration as the students they teach?” he adds.

Professor Sayer says that his blogging has landed him in trouble with Trevor McMillan, Lancaster’s pro vice-chancellor for research, who complained that one post featured an “implied comparison…of compliance with the REF process and attitudes to the Holocaust” that had “caused some great distress among a number of your colleagues”.

Professor Sayer said he had not compared the REF to the Holocaust and his point was merely that those administering the assessment “are prepared to engage in actions that may damage the reputations and careers of colleagues, even though they know the processes of evaluation…are far less rigorous than those normally used in academia”.

This was an example of “a more general problem of how ordinary decent folks sometimes do extraordinary and indecent things when required or empowered to do so”.

A spokeswoman for the university said: “We are confident that we are making well-informed judgements as part of a careful decision-making process, which includes internal and external peer review.”

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Reader's comments (3)

Bravo Professor Sayer! If only more senior academics like him, who are secure enough to do so, had the guts and wit to stand up and be counted in public and resist the mad managerialism which is destroying everything that Britain's universities once were and stood for.

This is a particularly important story because last week THE issued a very important plea concerning the treatment of academic staff not returned in REF ('More than a game of numbers'). It may be that the staff not returned is not simply 'unlucky', as John Gill put it, but that the process of evaluation is not nearly as robust as has been claimed. It should also be noted that, not just at Lancaster University, but also at the University of Warwick, it seems that the process of deciding who should be included and who should not has proved particularly unkind toward those unlucky enough to have believed in university's professed commitment to 'interdisciplinarity'.

THE might also want to inquire about why Simon Halliday has tonight withdrawn his biting YouTube satire on REF (Final REF Submission) ... It certainly verged on the tasteless as it compared the defense of science and the disciplines with Hitler's last stand, but that's what satire is about, isn't it? Is the defense of taste being used to quash legitimate criticism?

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