The Higher Education Funding Council for England is taking legal advice after the publication of an English Association report criticising some of its assessors.
The report, written by Gordon Campbell, chairman of the Association, argues that assessors involved in the council's teaching quality assessment exercise were "crudely insensitive to the proprieties of English departments". In particular the assessors are accused of mocking "feminist or gay enthusiasms".
"Laddish bonhomie may be acceptable in the male-dominated world of science, but it is not appropriate to the humanities," says the report.
The English Association has nearly 2,500 members and is the main body representing English in universities. The report argues that the effect of the assessors' behaviour has been to undermine what was in other ways a worthwhile exercise.
The behaviour of some of the reporting assessors has marred "what should have been an exercise characterised by probity and sound judgement," it says.
Reporting assessors are contract employees of the HEFCE who lead assessment visits. A significant number are academics or academic administrators who have taken early retirement or been seconded by their institutions. They are distinct from specialist assessors, who are chosen from the subject being assessed, and who come in for particular praise in Professor Campbell's report. He commented: "We are not arguing that there should be no scientists among reporting assessors for English, but it would appear to be helpful if an assessor has a background in humanities."
A spokesman for the funding council said: "While acknowledging that Professor Campbell makes a number of positive points about the benefits of the quality assessment process we are concerned that in part of his article he defames a hardworking and dedicated group of people who are doing an important and difficult job for the council."
The report calls on the funding council to improve the training of reporting assessors. It also singles out some aspects of the exercise as praiseworthy. There are now more than 80 subject assessors who have had to think carefully about English provision, the report points out, and every department has had to review its own procedures. Arthur Brown, the lead assessor in the whole exercise is also singled out for praise.