University of Sheffield’s Archaeology students file complaint over ‘unethical’ review process

More than 100 University of Sheffield students affected by the possible closure of the Department of Archaeology have submitted an official letter of complaint over the review process they deemed to be "unethical".

In the two-page letter sent to the university's Research Ethics Committee chair Professor Peter Bath and made public on social media, the students said the institutional review "did not adhere to ethical requirements" - as clearly stated in the research ethics policy.

The students wrote: "Clearly we were not fully informed about how and why our data would be collected and used as part of a research project, and by whom, before, or during the February 12 student input meeting."

It was reported previously that there were two student review meetings - the first one held on February 12, but they were never sent an agenda for the meeting or the purpose of the meeting.

A rally held in support of Department of Archaeology

A second meeting was held on May 19 where they were told that the university was closing the department, which was not at all mentioned in the first meeting.

Both meetings were chaired by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Gill Valentine.

"The (first) meeting was scheduled for a time when some of those invited had classes or laboratories further confirmed to us the informal nature of the meeting.

"When a student asked what the purpose of the review was, the deputy vice-chancellor stated that the goal of the review was to 'support the development of the department' and that the department could be closed as a result of the review," the students said, adding that their involvement is not reflected in the statement.

“These comments are more distressing when we consider that the deputy vice-chancellor is the chair of the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee. Her comments undermine our confidence in the University’s commitment to EDI and widening participation,” they said.

The students also complained that the original notes from these meetings were destroyed, meaning that individual students cannot withdraw their input from the review.

This, they said, appears to be at odds with the University Retention Schedule.

"Thirdly, we do not believe that the staff conducting the review acted with honesty and integrity. To illustrate, we believe the comments made by the deputy vice-chancellor in the May 19 meeting equating students with entry grades lower than AAA to 'Aldi-level products.'

"(This) exemplifies the lack of professionalism and insensitivity to students that we experienced throughout the review."

"Further that the review was carried out during the Covid-19 pandemic, when student stress and anxiety was already high, shows that there was no attempt to mitigate harm and no risk assessment created to justify the timing.

"Students have been repeatedly directed to Student Access to Mental Health Services, which is currently understaffed because it is the summer.

"That this is the only effort made to protect student mental health is reactionary and inadequate. Especially since, ethically, these concerns should have been considered before the review began.”

University of Sheffield's Executive Board (UEB) had proposed the closure of the Department of Archaeology following an institutional review late last month, triggering nationwide outrage.

They said, however, they will continue to support the discipline as it is no longer viable to maintain the status quo due to the declining numbers of students choosing the field.