UCU uses law to demand RAE records

Union plans to make regular requests for records to prevent their being shredded, writes Zoe Corbyn

May 1, 2008

The University and College Union is to make a series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act for records from the panels assessing the quality of academics' work in the research assessment exercise after plans to destroy the material were reported in Times Higher Education.

The union's Higher Education Committee passed an emergency motion in response to the news report (17 April), which detailed how panel members had been instructed to destroy notes on how they reach their decisions to avoid requests under freedom of information and data protection laws.

"The destruction of panel records destroys any argument that the RAE is somehow an objective and scientific measure of higher education research outputs," the UCU motion says.

The UCU will ask for "all RAE panel evidence including personal notes, workbooks, draft minutes and minutes". It intends to make a request "at the end of each month, beginning in April, until the end of the year".

The team managing the RAE on behalf of the UK's funding bodies told panel members in November to destroy records "at the latest 20 days after creation" in order to avoid dealing with freedom of information requests "and the associated burden".

RAE manager Ed Hughes told Times Higher Education this week that the RAE 2008 was "even more open and transparent than in previous exercises". Final minutes of each panel meeting would be placed in the public domain, he said.

"A careful and open document-management process that places the important final record of meetings in the public domain can hardly be damaging to the objectivity of the RAE. We would be willing to talk to UCU officials to allay any concerns they might have about the fairness of the process.

"We do not wish to add additional burden to individual panel members by making them potentially liable to freedom of information requests in future ... it is the collective decision made by the whole panel that leads to the final published results. These collective discussions are recorded in the formal minutes that will be published in spring 2009," he added.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said it was a fair response by the UCU. "There are plenty of potential conflicts of interest (in the assessment process). How can a complaints policy be effective if there is no trace of anything you have left behind you," he said.



Attempts to make judgments on the quality of academics' research more objective under the current research assessment exercise have failed, according to a new study.

Changes put in place for the 2008 RAE move the process no further forward from being "completely subjective", according Ron Johnston, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, whose study is published in the latest edition of Higher Education Quarterly.

The paper, "On structuring subjective judgements: originality, significance and rigour in RAE 2008", examines the interpretations used by 15 main assessment panels and 67 sub-panels to substantiate the three criteria of "originality", "rigour" and "significance" on which they are required to base their evaluations for the 2008 exercise.

The study concluded that the extended definitions provided by the panels are "no less subjective than the generic descriptions".

"All that most of the panels and sub-panels have done is rewrite one set of relatively vague descriptors into another: the words may be different but the imprecision is just the same," it says.

Professor Johnston, now professor in Bristol's School of Geographical Sciences, criticised the process for trying to put an "objective gloss" on what was an exercise in subjective decision-making.

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