University promotions process alleged to be illegal

Alex Coke-Woods 13 November 2008

Cambridge University is investigating allegations that it illegally rejects qualified applicants for senior academic positions on a regular basis.
Two senior academics have accused the University of consistently ignoring its own official guidelines on teaching staff promotions. Dr Nick Gay, a Reader in Biochemistry, claims to have evidence that senior appointments are actually being made according to “an opaque and secretive secondary system of ranking,” which he says is illegal.
The allegations, made during a discussion at Senate House, were referred by the University’s governing Council to the General Board on November 3rd. Professor Willy Brown, a member of the General Board, the body responsible for the University’s academic policy, told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “I can see no grounds for saying that the University is acting illegally. The criteria make reference to the applicant’s international reputation, and that’s subjective.”
But Dr Gay, whose own application for promotion was passed over last year, claims to have documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which disprove this. He says the documents show all last year’s rejected applicants for promotion in the Biological and Medical Sciences as having had “clear evidence evaluations on all the criteria for promotion.” This is, he claims, “information that the General Board would prefer to keep secret.”
Professor Gillian Evans, who won the right in 1997 to a judicial review into the University’s promotions procedure, was the second of the two academics who spoke out at Senate House. Following her campaign, Cambridge altered its promotions procedure ten years ago and the review was never implemented. But, she says, if Cambridge is failing, once again, to award promotions on the basis of clear criteria in accordance with the law, this judicial review could now be enforced.
With the decade-old threat of a legal inquiry hanging in the air, Professor Evans told those assembled at Senate House: “The published criteria for promotion have become worthless. Many candidates fully satisfy them but why some are promoted and some are not remains as mysterious as when I took the question to the High Court.”
“Promotion is no longer given where it is deserved but when it can be afforded,” she concluded. But, she told TCS: “The finding of the Court is still authoritative.”
Dr Gay told Senate House: “The evaluative criteria introduced to comply with the law are redundant. Decisions about promotions are no longer being made in relation to a common set of relevant criteria, but by subjective and arbitrary assessments, the nature of which is not known by the candidates.”
He told TCS: “I was absolutely appalled when I found out what was going on. It’s not actually legal unless they use a defined set of criteria, but they won’t tell us what the criteria are.”
“My legal friends tell me that the refusal to give reasons could be contested by judicial review,” he continued, adding that he was personally considering taking legal action. “I wouldn’t rule it out completely, and I’ve told them that,” he said.
Asked why he thought the University was failing to comply both with its own regulations and with UK law, Dr Gay pointed to financial limits on the annual number of promotions.
“This is absolutely bound to arise if you have a financial constraint on the number of people you can promote,” Dr Gay explained. “People are becoming demoralised and demotivated as a result, so it’s not good for the University.”
Professor Evans explained that the University has failed to fulfil the promises it made in 1997, when the threat of judicial review was still fresh.
“The result of the last patch of warfare was pretty satisfactory. We had a massive catch-up of overdue promotions, and we won the concession that everyone who deserved it should get promoted,” she said. “The General Board went back on the deal and said it would promote only as many as the university could afford.”
At present, University Readers take home a starting salary of £55,259, while a Professor begins at £64,059. Dr Gay has said that he would not like to see promotions separated from pay increases, as is the case at Oxford University.
Dr Mike Clark, Vice-President of the Cambridge University and College Union (UCU), which represents employment interests of teaching staff, said: “The senior academic promotions process should adhere to basic principles of fairness and natural justice.”
“Applicants should have clear information on what the judged criteria for academic promotion are. The actual criteria that are used to ultimately judge applicants are not those which are published in the guidelines.”
A member of the General Board said: “We can’t promote everyone we’d like to see promoted. People can be delayed in promotion for two or even six years because they’ve been unlucky in having tough referees. It’s not a perfect process.”

Alex Coke-Woods
Associate Editor