Whistle blown on Russell referees

February 2, 1996

Just before Christmas a colleague from another university asked me to be one of his nominated referees in his application for promotion. Nothing unusual in this, I have acted in such a capacity on more than a dozen occasions in Britain (as well as for universities in five other countries). What is unusual, and certainly unique for me, is that his nomination of me has not been accepted. He has been told that his university will only accept academics from the Russell Group of universities as external assessors for his promotion.

I do not know how widespread this policy is but it has profound implications for the British university system. By setting themselves up as an elite sector separate from the rest of the system, they are creating a division in British academia that can only be harmful to the future of all universities. Currently there are a large number of inter-university activities that academics carry out for little or no remuneration but which are essential to the proper running of our universities. The basic currency is goodwill. As well as writing promotion assessments, we examine higher degrees, carry out the onerous task of external examining undergraduate degrees, assess grant applications, review book manuscripts, present research seminars, referee articles for journals, write references for applicants and much more. The organisation of all these tasks has been informal, through personal contacts with invitations based upon assessment of the contribution an individual can make. Are we now to be classified into Russells and Non-Russells (N-Rs) with the former not to be tarred by N-R judgements? I edit a journal, should I ensure that I use only Russell referees for Russell authors? Such behaviour would be ludicrous, of course, but not more so than disqualifying N-Rs from promotion assessments of Russell colleagues. As a N-R I like to look at this development positively. Being someone no longer qualified to contribute to the good running of a section of the country's universities, I can ensure more time for other things: our three Rs - reading, writing and research.

I imagine having the burden of goodwill lifted next time I receive a telephone call inviting me, say, to be external examiner at a Russell Group university: "Sorry, I won't be able to cope with the quality of your work, it would be unfair on your students". Since the Russells are quite a small minority, we could, perhaps, organise a boycott of this aspiring elite.

It would probably be quite effective given that it would combine personal advantage with a general anti-elite legitimation. N-Rs to the barricades?

(Name and institution supplied) Applicants for a lectureship at the University of York have been instructed to ask their referees to write directly to the university. Unless a tiny field is expected, this will waste the time and goodwill of a large number of referees. For instance, if the university normally takes up three references for a field of 100 applicants, some 0 are headed straight for the bin.

May I hope that there will be no spread of this deplorable practice?

Martin Hollis Professor of Philosophy School of economic and social studies University of East Anglia

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