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Durham University

Learning and Teaching Handbook

4.1.1: Departmental Review (Interim)

Departmental Review (Interim Arrangement): Revised Scope of Process [1]

1. This variation on the Departmental Review process was agreed by Senate on 16th June 2015, initially for the academic year 2015-2016 only, to ensure that Departmental Review was cognizant of the REF Review process. It's operation from subsequently extended by Senate, to permit reviews of the Departmental Review process in light of the changing internal and external environment changes. The normal process is outlined in Section 4.1 of this handbook.

2. REF Reviews do not look at individual outputs but look holistically at activity within a department. REF reviews consider specifically research strategy, research management, the interaction with professional support services, research environment, and support for PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and early career lecturers, in the context of REF2014. Reviews take place over 1-2 days, with a team composition which includes the Faculty PVC and Deputy (Research), and external subject specialists. The reviews make recommendations to the Faculty on future REF planning, research strategy and research management.

3. The Research aspect of Departmental Review aims to evaluate the effectiveness with which the department articulates clear strategies for the development of their research activity and the organisation of, and support for, research within the department and the department's past and likely future performance in external assessments of research quality. More specifically, it looks at the Department's research position (including an overall assessment of research output and impact), its Management of research activities (including research planning), research funding, facilities/ environment. The review also considers support for early career staff and PhD students, and the relationship between the department and professional support services.

4. Senate agreed, that operating a dual process of both REF reviews and Departmental Reviews during 2015-16 would duplicate work for staff in the faculty and, in particular, place an unnecessary additional burden on those academic departments under review. It agreed therefore that the scope of Departmental Reviews should be reduced during 2015-16 to minimise consideration of Research issues. Having operated successfully in 2015-16, it was agreed that the interim period would be extended until 2018-19.

Purpose and aims of Departmental Review

5. The following principles underpin Departmental Review:

a. It will consider all aspects of a department's educational provision, the management of that provision, and the research environment (to provide context for the support offered for research degree students, which is covered under the education section of Departmental Review), and Research-Education links, in order to support the department's strategic development in these areas.

b. It will be a peer review process, which involves direct engagement between the review team and the staff and students of the department under review.

c. All review teams will draw directly on academic expertise beyond the University, and consider the internal and external environment within which the department is operating.

d. Departmental Review will satisfy the requirements of the national quality assurance framework in respect of the periodic review of educational provision.

e. Wherever possible it will use documentation already in existence, and if possible will source this documentation from professional support services rather than academic departments.

f. Our students will be directly involved in this process through a student member of the review team, and through direct engagement between the review team and students of the department under review.

6. The aims of Departmental Review are to evaluate:

a. The effectiveness with which the department articulates clear strategies for the development of its educational provision.

b. The academic quality and standards of the department's educational provision (taught and research degree programmes), and the effectiveness of the department's policies and processes for assuring quality and standards, and enhancing the learning opportunities provided to students. As result of this consideration, the review team will make a recommendation as to whether the department's taught programmes, and where relevant integrated and professional doctorates, should be revalidated for a further six years.

c. The department's approach to the links between its research and educational provision, and the impact of research on its teaching.

Joint Honours

7.When the lead department for a joint honours programme offered outside Combined Honours or Natural Sciences is reviewed, the review will cover the overall integrity of the joint honours programme (aims, learning outcomes, curriculum design, advice to students, student progress and quality management procedures).

8. Consideration of subject-specific contributions to Combined Honours, Natural Sciences and joint honours degrees will take place within each Departmental Review. This will include review of the modules available in that department for students taking Combined Honours, Natural Sciences and joint honours programmes.

Membership of the review team

9. Each Departmental Review shall be conducted by a team consisting of:

  • the Faculty Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Chair)
  • the chair of a Faculty Education Committee from the faculty of the department under review
  • the chair of a Faculty Education Committee from a faculty other than the one in which the department under review is located [2]
  • one external subject specialist
  • a student member from a department other than the one under review, normally a DSU sabbatical officer/current student [3]

All internal review team members will receive training in the process organised by the Academic Support Office.

10. The secretariat for the review will be provided by the Academic Support Office.

External members of review teams

The remit of external reviewers

11. The external reviewers will be full members of the review team. External reviewers will be asked to consider all aspects of departmental education and, as appropriate, research activities. It is not the intention or expectation that external reviewers be appointed with specific or exclusive remits within the review process.

Criteria for the appointment of external reviewers

12. An external reviewer should:

a. be an experienced and currently practising teacher and researcher in higher education of the discipline(s) of the department under review;

b. be able to comment on the educational provision of the department under review as a whole;

c. be a specialist in an area or areas covered by the educational provision to be reviewed.

13. To avoid conflicts of interest, external reviewers should not be:

a. currently or recently (within five years) an external examiner in the department to be reviewed;

b. a member of staff or student in the University within the last five years;

c. have any other close link with the department under review (e.g. a significant research collaboration).

Appointment of external reviewers

14. At least three months before the start of the academic year in which they are to be reviewed, departments shall nominate five potential external subject specialists using the nomination form at Appendix A4.01. This form will ask for a brief rationale for nominations, and brief details of each nominee's academic credentials. Nominations should be made by the head of department, acting on behalf of (and in consultation with) their board of studies in order to ensure that the nominees will have credibility with colleagues across the department. An all-inclusive fee of £800 will be paid to each external reviewer.

15. The five nominees shall form a shortlist of potential external reviewers, from which one will be chosen by the chair of the review team.

Frequency and duration of reviews

Frequency of reviews

16. Each department will be subject to Departmental Review once every six years, in accordance with the detailed schedule available at Appendix A4.07. If successful, Departmental Review will lead to the revalidation of the taught programmes (and where relevant integrated and professional doctorates) reviewed for a six year period i.e. until the next Departmental Review. The review team may recommend that the programme(s) be revalidated for a period less than six years, if significant concerns are raised as part of the review process.

Duration and timing of reviews

17. Departmental Reviews will take place over one day (in exceptional circumstances, the duration of the review may be extended e.g. where the size and complexity of a department was such that meeting the aims of the review process would not be possible in one day).

18. Reviews will normally take place during term time in order to facilitate student involvement in the review process. The dates of individual reviews will be set by the chair and secretary of the review team in consultation with the department to be reviewed.

19. Where a department has educational provision across the University's two campuses, the review team may spend time at both Durham City and the Queen's Campus.

Relationship between Departmental Review and the annual planning process

20. Departmental Review has explicitly been designed to link to the annual planning process in a way that supports departments. The outcome of the Departmental Review process is a report identifying areas of good practice and areas for further consideration, and departments are expected to reflect on the issues arising from these areas when preparing the strategic plan developed in the annual planning cycle following a Departmental Review.

21. Any issues arising from the Departmental Review with resource implications must be taken forward via the departmental strategic plan and the planning process; Departmental Review and the follow-up to it have no authority to make decisions in this area.

The review process

22. Departments to be reviewed shall be informed of this at the start of the academic year prior to the one in which they are to be reviewed, and a meeting will take place between the department to be reviewed and the secretary to the review team to discuss the nature of the process and begin preparations for the review. This will allow the department to be reviewed to:

a. Obtain support for any aspects of the review with which they are unfamiliar.

b. Nominate external subject specialists to serve on the review team.

c. Finalise the dates for the review.

23. Approximately eight weeks before the date of the review visit the department should provide the secretary to the review team with the documentation requested in paragraph 29 below.

24. No later than seven weeks before the date of the review visit the secretary to the review team will circulate the review documentation to the members of the review team. This will include the Guidance note for review teams (available at Appendix A4.13), which identifies some of the key issues that will be considered by teams during the course of Departmental Reviews.

25. Approximately four weeks before the review visit is due to take place, the review team will meet to consider the documentation supplied and identify key areas for discussion during the review visit and likely areas of good practice. This meeting will use the Guidance note for review teams as a framework for this discussion. Following this meeting the chair and secretary to the review team shall provide brief feedback to the department under review on the key issues identified for further discussion, and request from the department any further documentation that the review team wish to see before or during the review visit.

26. During the course of the review visit, the review team will normally hold meetings with:

a. The head of department, and other key senior staff (normally the directors of research, undergraduate studies and postgraduate research, and if one is in place the deputy head of department).

b. Representative undergraduate students.

c. Representative taught postgraduate students.

d. Representative research postgraduate students.

e. Academic staff with specific responsibilities for taught and research degree programmes (e.g. directors of undergraduate studies and postgraduate studies, programme leaders, level tutors, chairs of boards of examiners, members of the department Education Committee).

f. A representative group of recently appointed members of academic staff (appointed in the last three years), and a representative group of more established staff.

g. Representatives each from relevant professional services that the department engages with on a regular basis (the precise membership of this group will be agreed by the review team at its pre-meeting, taking into account written responses from Library, CIS and the Academic Office).

Meetings may be amalgamated or sub-divided at the discretion of the review team. Additional meetings may also be held, subject to negotiation between the chair of the review team and the head of department.

27. In addition the review team shall conduct a tour of the department's resources, which shall be facilitated by a departmental representative.

28. At the end of the review visit the review team will provide the department with preliminary oral feedback on some of the key findings of the review team. This feedback shall include an indication of the review team's recommendation on the revalidation of taught programmes.

Documentation required as part of the review process

29. Prior to each Departmental Review the review team will be provided with a range of documentation that will allow it to consider the key aspects of activity in the department under review. The documentation, and the responsibility for providing it to the review team secretary, shall be as follows:

a. To be supplied by the department under review:

i. a brief self-evaluation document (further details on this are available in paragraphs 32-35);

ii. the department's strategic plan, and an organogram of the department's governance and management structure.

iii. Up-to-date programme specifications for each taught programme, and each integrated and professional doctorate, offered by the department. Programme specifications should accordingly be updated as necessary. Each programme specification should be accompanied by a curriculum mapping document setting out how the learning outcomes are delivered across the modules on the programme (the curriculum mapping template and an example mapping document are available as appendices to section 3 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook);

iv. Departmental policies on:

  • accreditation of prior learning;
  • feedback on assessed work;
  • placement learning;
  • quality assurance of assessment;
  • training postgraduates for teaching;
  • departmental code of practice on research degree programmes.

v. Degree programme handbooks, and the equivalent for research students.

vi. Where relevant, the minutes of the previous year’s Staff-Student Consultative Committee meetings for any collaborative programmes.

b. To be supplied by the Academic Support Office:

i. Relevant subject benchmark statements.

ii. University qualification and level descriptors, and University generic assessment criteria.

iii. The University's Principles for the development of the taught curriculum.

iv. The report from the most recent departmental annual review of taught programmes (including the department's action plan for the implementation of the Principles for the development of the taught curriculum submitted as part of this process).

v. The report from the most recent departmental annual review of research degree programmes.

vi. National Student Survey results for the department for the last five years; and the most recent set of results from the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey.

vii. The key performance indicators issued to the department as part of the annual reviews of taught and research degree programmes.

viii. Completion and submission rate data for research degree programmes.

ix. The report from the Enhancement-led Review of the department, and a summary of the department's response to this.

x. Where relevant, the report of the most recent accreditation visit/process conducted by a Professional, Statutory of Regulatory Body.

xi. Where relevant, the report from the most recent departmental annual review (and, where relevant, the most recent management committee minutes) of each collaborative partnership.

xii. External examiner reports, and departmental responses to these, for the last two academic years.

xiii. Listings of the take-up within the department of central academic staff development, and central research student training opportunities.

xiv. Brief written reports from Library, CIS and the Academic Office on key issues in their area, that relate to the department under review.

c. To be supplied by the Research Office (and Treasurer's), as background information only:

i. The most recent departmental submission to the RAE or REF, and the RAE/ REF panel's feedback on this submission.

ii. The report of the research review of the department conducted by the faculty during 2009/10.

d. To be supplied by the Strategic Planning Office:

i. The most recent departmental profile provided as part of the planning process, including any benchmarking data on comparator HEIs.

ii. The notes of the previous year's planning meetings for the department under review.

30. In addition, the department should make the following documentation available to the review team during the review visit (wherever possible this documentation should be provided in an electronic format):

a. Minutes of departmental committees for the last three academic years. (Supporting papers for committee minutes do not need routinely to be made available, but may be requested as necessary by the review team during the course of the review visit).

b. Access to the duo sites used to support the department's educational provision.

31. Review teams will not routinely consider samples of student assessed work. They will, however, have the right to request to see examples of student work and/or marking proformas if other evidence (for example external examiner reports) gives reason for concern in any area for which samples of assessed work would provide evidence.

Self-Evaluation Document

32. All departments are required to submit a Self-Evaluation Document eight weeks before their Departmental Review is due to take place. The SED should be a brief reflective commentary on the key issues and challenges facing the department in relation to their educational provision. It will therefore identify what the department under review regards as the key issues that it would like to discuss with the review team during the course of the review.

33. The SED should be no more than two sides of A4, Arial 11 point with 2cm margins.

34. As will be evident from paragraphs 29-30 above, a significant amount of background information will be available to the review team on each of the areas under review. Consequently the SED should focus on identifying key strengths and weaknesses, and not on providing descriptive or background information that the review team will be able to find elsewhere.

35. The SED should address each of the main headings that will be used by the review team in constructing its report of the review, i.e. departmental management and strategy; education; research student supervision; research-education links. Departments may choose whether to write separate sections of the SED addressing these headings, or to adopt a more integrated approach, provided that all the areas are covered. Departments may, if they wish, choose to present their SED in the form of a SWOT analysis.

36. When drafting the SED the department might find it helpful to consult the Guidance note for review teams (available at Appendix A4.13). It is not expected that departments can or should address within the SED all the specific issues detailed in this Guidance note, but the Guidance note does indicate some of the contexts in which the information provided in the SED will be considered during the course of the review.

The review report

37. The review report will summarise the judgments of the review team on each of the areas under review. It will include commendations of areas of effective practice, and recommended areas for further consideration and action. The text of the report will provide the context and the rationale for each of these commendations and recommendations. Review teams will make recommendations to the department; they may also make recommendations to either the faculty in which the department is based, or to the University.

38. The structure of the review report will be as follows:

Executive summary

  • Key summative judgments (including a recommendation regarding the revalidation of programmes)
  • Headline commendations for the department
  • Headline recommendations for the department
  • Recommendations to the faculty
  • Recommendations to Education Committee and Research Committee

Research - education links

  • The nature and effectiveness of the links between the department's research and educational provision
  • The effectiveness with which these links are communicated to students


  • The Department’s strategic approach to educational provision
  • Academic standards of provision (including the effectiveness of curricula in supporting these)
  • Quality of learning and teaching
  • Quality of assessment
  • Student support and guidance (including recruitment and admissions, and student feedback on their learning experience)
  • Quality and use of learning resources
  • Operation of quality management and enhancement procedures

Research student supervision

  • Recruitment and admissions
  • Research training
  • Supervisory arrangements
  • Student support and monitoring of progress (including submission rates)
  • Quality and use of resources
  • Student feedback and representation

39. A draft key findings summary, listing the team’s commendations and recommendations, will be sent to members of the review team for approval within two weeks of the review visit. Upon approval by the Chair of the team, the key findings will be sent to the department. The detailed draft report will normally be sent to the review team within four weeks of the review visit. The reviewers will be asked to approve the text within two weeks of the draft being received. No more than a week after this, the agreed draft will be sent to the department for comment on factual errors. The department shall return these comments to the review secretary within a further two weeks. The final report will be confirmed by the chair of the review team (consulting as appropriate with other members of the review team) and sent to the department for consideration within a further two weeks.

Follow up to Departmental Review

40. Once finalised, review reports will be received by Quality and Standards Sub-Committee, to consider recommendations for the revalidation of programmes on behalf of EC and any issues of learning and teaching policy or procedure referred to the University by the review team.

41. In order to support departments in responding to Departmental Review reports, once the final report has been received by the department it will be discussed at the next meeting between the department and the faculty. The purpose of this discussion will be to consider the recommendations made in the review report; progress to date in addressing the report's recommendations; plans for further action in response to the review report; and the types of information/evidence that a department might need to submit in support of its final response to the review report.

42. A written response to the recommendations of the review report will be required from departments 12 months after the report of the review has been issued to the department. Responsibility for ensuring that a department has responded to recommendations rests with the head of department (heads of department may delegate authority, but not responsibility, for implementing specific actions to colleagues in their department if they wish to do so). Where appropriate, evidence of actions taken should be appended. External members of review teams will be invited to comment on this written response. If a review report has made recommendations with resourcing implications, it is the responsibility of the head of department to take these forward as part of the planning process and report back on progress as part of the 12 month-on submission relating to Departmental Review. The follow-up process to Departmental Review does not have the authority to release resource outside the standard planning process.

43. This written response will be reviewed by the Faculty Periodic Review and Accreditation Panel, the membership of which shall be:

  • the Faculty Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Chair)
  • the chair of the Faculty Education Committee (Undergraduate)
  • the chair of the Faculty Education Committee (Postgraduate)
  • the chair of Faculty Research Group
  • the Faculty Support Officer (Secretary)

44. The Faculty Periodic Review and Accreditation Panel shall consider the departmental response to the review, and whether further feedback or evidence is required. The Panel shall be responsible for deciding whether the recommendations in the report have been satisfactorily addressed. Once all the recommendations have been addressed the Chair shall recommend to QSSC that the review process be signed-off as complete in respect of educational provision.

Evaluation of the Departmental Review Process

45. The process will be the subject of ongoing, annual evaluation, in terms of both its fitness for purpose as a process and University level evaluation of the outputs of Departmental Review.

46. Following each Departmental Review members of review teams, and departments that have been reviewed, will be asked to complete a brief questionnaire on the process. The heads of the Academic Support Office and Research Office shall be responsible for analysing the responses to these questionnaires and, if necessary, reporting on this to EC (via QSSC) and Research Committee and making recommendations for revisions to the Departmental Review process in light of the feedback received.

[1] Throughout this document the process is referred to as Departmental Review, as a short hand for Departmental/School review of any Boards of Studies and/or the Foundation or English Language Centre during 2015-16.

[2] Normal practice will be that there will be one chair of FEC (Undergraduate), and one chair of FEC (Postgraduate) on each review team.

[3] Training will be provided to support the student panel members.