Whistleblowers: Scholar to complain about Hefce inquiry

September 5, 2003

The Oxford scholar who blew the whistle on erroneous submissions to the research assessment exercise by London Metropolitan University is to make a formal complaint against the Higher Education Funding Council for England, claiming it badly mishandled its investigation.

Alan O'Day is concerned that although Hefce found that his allegations that the university misrepresented its research output were "for the most part factually accurate", and although it identified a number of errors in the university's submissions, it decided to take no action beyond warning the university of its legal duty in future to make accurate data returns.

Dr O'Day, a fellow of the Oxford Rothermere American Institute, is concerned that Hefce apparently ignored a key allegation that it had agreed to investigate, repeatedly relied on assumptions and ambiguities without any apparent reference to its records and took more than two-and-a-half years from the date of his original complaint to reach a conclusion. He plans to invoke Hefce's formal complaints procedure to demand an investigation.

The THES reported last month that Hefce found that in the 1992 and 1996 RAEs the history department of what was then the University of North London submitted a book for the 1992 assessment that had first been published in 1989 and others that were not published until 1993 and 1996. It also submitted a book in 1996 that was published after the allowed cut-off date.

The department also submitted a number of authored books for assessment that were works of translation; an entry in a teaching textbook as an "edited book"; a journal article whose existence Hefce could not verify; and a book for which it could not verify the publication date.

But despite the catalogue of concerns, Hefce concluded that the RAE rules had been "broad and with scope for interpretation" and they fell within this scope, and "the errors and interpretations will have had little impact on overall assessments". It said they were "immaterial".

Dr O'Day claims the original terms of the investigation were ignored. The minutes of a meeting with Hefce's head of audit, Paul Greaves, in January 2003, made Dr O'Day's key allegation clear. "Dr O'Day is certain that the UNL School of History included the same publication in the 1992, 1996 and 2001 RAE submission," the minutes say. But this complaint was not one of the 19 issues addressed in Hefce's final report.

Hefce did find that one book, which it reported was "believed to be" Altered Images by historian Cathy Castle, was submitted for the 1992 RAE even though it was not published until 1996. Taking this point in isolation, Hefce concluded that there was no breach of the rules because the long delay was explained by a change of publisher.

It also found that another Castle book, which it said was "believed to be" called Britannia's Children, was entered for the 1996 RAE but was published too late for inclusion. In language Dr O'Day criticised for being "vague" and "unacceptable" given the council's access to its own records, Hefce concluded that the book "may" have been submitted as a forthcoming publication, and said it "believed" that the assessment panel "would have taken a decision on the validity of this publication".

There was no finding from Hefce on whether it was submitted as "forthcoming". Hefce also made no finding on Dr O'Day's explicit concern that the book was submitted again in 2001.

Dr O'Day said the delay in receiving a report from Hefce was unacceptable.

He had first raised his concerns in March 2001 and Hefce promised action.

But 18 months later, in September 2002, Hefce was forced to admit that it had lost his dossier of allegations and evidence. It was immediately re-sent, and eventually Dr O'Day was promised a "final conclusion" by July 4 2003. The report eventually emerged in August.

Hefce declined to comment this week, but apologised to Dr O'Day for the delay in reaching a conclusion. It said that it had "conducted a proper investigation" that related to issues dating back up to ten years and during a time when UNL was merging to form London Met.

It said the concerns were first raised when Hefce was busy with the 2001 RAE. This "inevitably took a considerable amount of time", it said.

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