The sector’s standards watchdog has been criticised for being secretive after it said it will no longer publish details of appeals against its judgements.
Under changes announced by the Quality Assurance Agency, no information will be disclosed about any individual higher education institution that lodges an appeal against a review team’s decision in case it causes “inadvertent reputational damage”. Neither will details of an appeal be made public once any repeat review has been completed, the QAA says.
The rule change, approved by the QAA board in December, comes after a successful appeal by the University of Southampton against critical findings in an institutional review carried out in 2012. Details of Southampton’s appeal are still expected to be published alongside the outcome of its repeat review, set for 2014-15.
“I do not see any reason why the public should not know details of these appeals,” said Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham and former head of the University of London’s academic council.
“I suspect it is to spare the QAA any embarrassment when its original decisions are overturned,” said Professor Alderman. “It does not sit well at all with the QAA’s apparent commitment to openness and transparency – why should there be this secrecy?” he added.
However, Douglas Blackstock, the QAA’s head of resources, said publishing information on appeals was unhelpful because “what is important is the confirmed judgement of the review team”.
“As well as the potential for inadvertent reputational damage to an institution that appeals, successfully or not, when this appeal is in the public domain, we are also concerned that publication could act as a deterrent to using the appeal process,” he said.
Professor Alderman has criticised other changes, including the removal of “perversity” of judgement as a reason to appeal a QAA decision, previously defined as an “unreasonable or disproportionate [conclusion] in the light of the available evidence”.
Institutions will instead have to appeal on grounds of procedural irregularity, such as reviewers failing to carry out agreed procedures, taking account of irrelevant information or exceeding their powers.
“A judgement can be perverse and go against the evidence,” said Professor Alderman. “Perversity is a term well-recognised in law courts and I don’t understand why it has been deleted,” he added.
The QAA has also made it clear that universities cannot object to individual appeal panel members on the grounds that they are from a different type of institution.
It pointed out that “type of institution” has never been a legitimate ground to reject a panel member – “conflict of interest” being the only reason. “The appeal panel is not re-running the review – it is considering whether it has been run properly or not,” Mr Blackstock said, adding that all panellists are experienced QAA reviewers.
However, Professor Alderman said research-intensive universities should be able to raise such objections. “It’s not a matter of being ‘snooty’, but peer review should be done by those from institutions with a broadly similar status and vision of higher education,” he said.
“It cuts both ways, too. A new university is different to a research-intensive, so you can see them objecting to someone working mainly in Oxbridge,” he added.