University Appointment processes should provide better information to applicants

Ombudsmen Act 1975
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Ombudsmen Act 1975
Sir Brian Elwood
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Unsuccessful applicant for a senior university appointment—alleged procedural unfairness—lack of clarity about processes and rights of appeal 

The complainant had applied for promotion to the rank of Professor and had supplied the names of prospective referees. Unknown to the complainant, the University also sought advice from an independent referee and subsequently decided not to promote her. The applicant initiated what she thought was a formal appeal to the Vice-Chancellor but was again unsuccessful. She complained that the University Academic Staff Committee had treated her unfairly and that the Vice-Chancellor had not carried out his functions as an appeal authority properly. She also alleged discrimination against women in the appointment process.

It transpired that the University always obtained an external referee's report, the source and detail of content not being disclosed to the applicant consistent with the ‘evaluative material’ provisions of the Privacy Act. In addition, contrary to what the complainant believed, there was no formal right of appeal to the Vice-Chancellor from a decision of the Academic Staff Committee. Furthermore, while the University had indicated some years before that it intended to discriminate positively in favour of well qualified women applicants, it had not established any positive action targets to implement this and had in fact, followed an even-handed approach on matters of gender.

The view was formed that the University had not acted with procedural unfairness, but that it should provide better information about the procedures adopted by its Academic Staff Committee in processing applications including that there is no formal right of appeal to the Vice Chancellor other than in his role as employer of all University staff. The University agreed to this suggestion and the investigation was concluded on that basis.

This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.

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