Panels ordered to shred all RAE records

Move to destroy papers is 'extremely negative', says information campaigner. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 17, 2008

A funding council team has secretly instructed panels assessing academics' work as part of the research assessment exercise to destroy all records of how they reach their conclusions, Times Higher Education has learnt.

The move, which has been condemned by a freedom-of-information campaign group, is aimed at avoiding challenges to panel decisions by academics using freedom-of-information or data-protection laws. It will see evidence such as notes and minutes explaining the panels' decision-making process shredded before the final RAE results are published.

In a confidential letter sent to panel members last November, Ed Hughes, head of the team managing the RAE on behalf of the UK's four funding bodies including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, sets out a timetable for the destruction of records. These include personal notes taken by panel members and the panel secretariat, workbooks recording emerging decisions about each submission and draft minutes of meetings.

DESTRUCTION TIMETABLE
Record typeTiming
Cross-referral advice (given and received)Disposal by panel secretary on 10 Dec
Specialist advice (given and received)Disposal by panel secretary on 10 Dec
Interim versions of workbooksDisposal by panel secretary by 10 Dec
Panel member personal notesDisposal by panel member within 20 days of creation and by 10 Dec at latest
Structured panel member working notesDisposal by panel member within 20 days of creation and by 10 Dec at latest
Panel secretariat working notesDisposal by panel secretary within 20 days of creation and by 10 Dec at latest
Panel secretariat drafts of procedural minutesDisposal by panel secretary and by 10 Dec at latest
Panel member copies of submissions and research outputsDisposal by panel member as soon as no longer required and by 10 Dec at latest
Panel and secretariat copies of submissions and research outputsDisposal by panel secretary as soon as no longer required and by 10 Dec at latest.

The letter, leaked to Times Higher Education, warns that if academics on the panels make personal notes and hold them for longer than 20 days they may need to be released to comply with legislation if a "relevant request for information" is received.

"We strongly wish to avoid dealing with such requests and the associated burden they would place on panel members and the secretariat. It is for this reason that we ask you to exercise caution in creating personal notes, destroy them at the latest 20 days after creation and do not disseminate them," it says.

The RAE is currently in its assessment phase. Fifteen main panels and 67 sub-panels of experts are judging the quality of research in departmental submissions. The results are due to be published in mid-December and will translate into research funding from 2009-10.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, described the approach as "extremely negative" and said that the RAE team had "lost all sense of proportion".

It is not against the law to destroy material to prevent its release under freedom-of-information legislation, as long as it has not actually been requested at the time of its destruction. However, it may infringe the Government's code of practice on good record-keeping management, Mr Frankel added.

"You need to keep records as long as you have a business use for them ... There is an obvious business use (here) which is that (the RAE team) may have to investigate complaints," he told Times Higher Education.

He added that the "overriding objective" of the instructions seemed to be to ensure that Hefce was in possession of nothing that could be requested under legislation, rather than to protect the integrity of the decision-making process.

One head of department, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was a "scandal" that the destruction of such data was being demanded. "It is a defensive attitude on the part of the bureaucrats because they are worried about challenge ... they should respect the fact that (academic) judgments have been made rather than trying to pretend they have not," he said.

One panel member welcomed the instructions and the protection they afforded panel members. "It is for our own good. The process could become an absolute nightmare if departmental heads or institutions chose to challenge the panels and this information was available."

A Hefce spokesman said that the funding council had consulted publicly on the draft criteria and working methods for the RAE, had published panel membership and other documentation and would be publishing procedural minutes relating to assessment alongside the results.

"These records provide a clear basis for ensuring that the decision-making process is robust and that the outcome is fair and will provide an audit trail. Our advice to panel members discussed the retention of personal notes taken by individual members in the course of their work. Such notes do not form part of the formal decision-making process and do not comprise part of the record of the RAE. In line with good practice, we recommend that these are not retained longer than necessary."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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