Analysis: Prizes lost in 'golden triangle'

October 3, 2003

Is the British Academy awards process biased? Phil Baty delves into the data

Male academics working in elite universities appear to have a stranglehold on awards made by the British Academy, fuelling a row over an "old-boys' network" at the heart of the British academic establishment.

A THES analysis of all research readership and fellowship awards made since the BA started publishing a list of its winners in 1997 found that 78 per cent have gone to men. Women have received only 22 per cent of the awards, even though they comprise 40 per cent of the academic community served by the BA.

The research also found that just 1.6 per cent of awards had gone to academics in new universities, which represent more than half of the sector. The rest went to pre-1992 institutions.

Of the awards going to the old universities, 44 per cent cent went to a small handful of institutions - those of the so-called golden triangle, which comprises the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the federal colleges of the University of London (such as King's and University College).

Roger Kline, head of the university's department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by findings. "It really is time that academic institutions and bodies took discrimination seriously and stopped looking remarkably like an old-boys' network," he said.

The findings come as controversy continues over the academy's handling of its £2 million centenary research award. The THES reported in June that the academy had caused a storm over "old-boy favouritism" when it awarded £1 million to a team led by academy fellows but decided to withhold a further £1 million.

The academy insists the competition was open and fair, and higher education minister Alan Johnson has declared himself happy with the process.

But a research team from Sussex University, which reached the final shortlist of three, confirmed this week that they were considering a judicial review application.

They said their complaints of a major conflict of interest from one of their referees went unheeded and that they were alarmed that academy fellows had access to information on competitors while non-fellows did not.

They were also concerned that two versions of the selection criteria were published by the academy.

One member of the Sussex team, environmental historian Richard Grove, said that THES research bore out his concerns that the academy was a "self-serving in-crowd" with in-built institutional prejudices.

The THES analysis found that of 129 research readership and fellowship awards made by the academy since 1997, 100 had gone to men. This imbalance was particularly marked in 1998, when just one woman received an award, equivalent to 6 per cent of recipients. The situation was little better in 1999, when men won 85 per cent of awards. In 2003, men received 82 per cent of awards.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that of all staff in the humanities and social science fields served by the British Academy, 40 per cent are female and 60 per cent men.

The academy's headquarters in Carlton House Terrace lies in the heart of London, just off Pall Mall and a stone's throw away from the Athenaeum and the Institute of Directors. But this patrician setting belies the fact that the BA relies almost entirely on taxpayers' money for its awards, via a £14 million grant from the Department for Education and Skills.

BA secretary Peter Brown declined to provide The THES with the application figures for the awards but strongly denied any bias against women. He blamed a low proportion of applications from female academics.

He said that, in three of the past four competitions, the percentage of awards to women exceeded the percentage of applications from women. "That women do not represent a higher percentage of the total number of applications is a reflection, we believe, of university employment practices and structures that govern their consequent representation within the more senior ranks of the academic profession."

Hesa figures show that while the genders are split almost 50-50 at the level of lecturer, women make up 34 per cent of senior lecturers and researchers and just 18 per cent of professors.

But the BA awards examined by The THES - which allow winners to drop their normal teaching and administrative duties to focus on their research for up to two years - are not restricted to the top echelons of academe, where men dominate.

They are, the academy explains on its website, "aimed at established scholars who are in mid-career in UK universities and who have already published works of intellectual distinction". They are for under 55s and are designed to help "enhance the career prospects of the award holder".

Mr Kline said: "Natfhe is disappointed but not entirely surprised that men are overwhelmingly the recipients of BA awards. Unfortunately this is part of a wider pattern of discrimination against women at every level of research within universities."

But while the BA awards may reflect deeper inequalities across academe, some believe that as recipients of millions of pounds of public money they should be addressing such problems by helping women in their careers.

Gill Evans, a former holder of a research readership and policy secretary of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, said: "If there are not enough senior women in the arts and humanities putting in applications for these awards, perhaps we should ask ourselves why.

"At undergraduate level, the arts and humanities attract a high proportion of females - it has not been my experience in teaching them that they are less able than their male counterparts."

While denying any gender-based bias, the BA accepts that academics in Russell Group universities were more successful in winning awards, with a near 19 per cent success rate for Russell Group academics and just under 12 per cent for non-Russell Group institutions.

The THES research found that of the 129 awards made since 1997, just two (1.6 per cent) had gone to academics in new universities. This compared with 54 per cent (70 awards) made to the 19 universities in the Russell Group.

Mr Brown said: "The purpose of these schemes is to make awards to the most outstanding researchers in recognition of their academic standing and their proposed projects. They are not in any sense awards to institutions.

"That said, it is surely not surprising if a relatively high proportion of successful applicants should come from the avowedly research-led universities."

Again, Mr Brown declined to release the application figures to The THES , but he admitted that applicants from outside the Russell Group were significantly less successful.

"We recognise, of course, that there are outstanding individual researchers in lower-rated departments in other universities, and we seek and consider on their merits applications from these institutions," he said.

Dr Evans said: "In my experience, those engaged in research outside this charmed circle see the academy as rather like the Athenaeum - elitist and exclusive and definitely a club - and they would not expect to succeed if they applied. Who dares wins, but many do not even dare to try for academy funds, I suspect."

Winners of the academy's readerships and fellowships were very reluctant to discuss The THES figures. Of the 38 who were approached, only eight replied and only two of them were prepared to be quoted.

One of them, Oxford Brookes University psychology professor Terezinha Nunes, won a BA readership in 2002 to take forward her work on understanding pupils' underachievement in mathematics. She said: "I seem to be one of the exceptions - a woman in a new university. I think a reflection on the composition of the members of the academy might be justified at the same time as these figures are discussed."

While the academy declined to provide a gender or ethnicity breakdown of their fellowship, an analysis by The THES of the institutional affiliations of all 782 elected ordinary and senior fellows reveals that 63 per cent are from the golden triangle of Oxbridge and London.

Just two fellows, The THES understands, are from new universities. One is Oxford graduate and former Cambridge lecturer Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University and outgoing president of Universities UK. The other is Lord Parekh, who left an old university to become professor of political philosophy at Westminster University.

All eight members of the academy's grants committee, which is responsible for "allocating funds for research and conference grants schemes", are from Russell Group institutions.

Three members (38 per cent) are from the golden triangle.

Of the 12-member research committee - which oversees the academy's research policy and monitors awards made - ten are from the Russell Group and the remaining two from old institutions. Six are from institutions in the golden triangle. Members include Rees Davies, the Oxford historian who won the first British Academy book prize in 2001, from a shortlist of six that included five BA fellows, and academy chairman Lord Runciman, who is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Professor Nunes said: "New universities do not have such a strong research tradition as old universities, which means they are at a disadvantage in many ways. Perhaps, though, the main disadvantage is the prejudice that the label 'new university' might stamp on the application."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns