Ministers to probe BA's 'old-boy bias'

August 22, 2003

The government is investigating allegations of "old-boy favouritism" at the British Academy after a storm of controversy over its £2 million centenary research award.

The Department for Education and Skills, which funds the BA with an annual £13 million grant, confirmed this week that it was examining complaints that BA fellows had an unfair advantage in the competition for the academy's biggest research award, and that the decision-making process lacked accountability, independence and transparency.

An investigation by The THES discovered:

  • The BA changed a key criterion for the award after the application process had taken place
  • BA fellows competing for the money had access to information about competitors' proposals while non-fellows did not
  • A research team from Sussex University that reached the final shortlist complained of a "serious conflict of interest"
  • The Sussex team claims the BA is trying to silence its protests, with unspecified offers of alternative financial "support".

The THES reported in June that the BA attracted criticism when it awarded £1 million of its £2 million centenary research award to BA fellow Clive Gamble of Southampton University, but decided to withhold the other £1 million. The Sussex team that reached the shortlist of three from among almost 100 applicants cried foul.

Although they have not questioned the winning team's credentials, Vinita Damodaran and Richard Grove, of Sussex's School of World Environmental History, wrote to the BA to say they were "astonished and disturbed" by the process, calling it a case of "old-boy favouritism". They added that all three BA book prizes had also gone to BA fellows.

Lewes Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker wrote to higher education minister Alan Johnson last month. He said: "It would appear almost as if fellowship of the BA is a prerequisite for those wishing to receive funds, which if true would suggest a process that is not fair and equitable."

He demanded a report on the BA's audit system for transparency, its complaints procedure and what would be done with the £1 million not allocated. The DFES is considering his concerns.

The THES learnt that the BA published two versions of the criteria for the award. In its call for proposals, it listed six criteria, includingthe requirement of an international focus. But when the BA announced the winner in June, this had changed to a requirement that the project should "create a new subdiscipline".

The Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards said this invalidated the competition.

It said: "To change a criterion after the applications are in... is like changing an examination paper and marking down these who sat the original examination because they answered the wrong questions."

It also emerged that all BA fellows, including those competing for the award, were sent a report in January giving details of the shortlisted applicants. Mr Baker said: "They had information about other candidates and were able to present their cases in the light of that information, an opportunity not available to those outside the BA."

Cafas said: "Accusations that the fellows constitute a self-serving in-crowd are going to be hard to rebut when they have privileged information in making their own applications for the funds the academy administers."

The Sussex team members were also concerned that the BA apparently ignored their complaint in March that the external assessor of their proposal, St Andrews University's Christopher Smout, had been involved in a dispute with Dr Grove. They claimed that offers of other support by the BA since their complaints became public amounted to an attempt to silence them.

The BA declined to respond to requests for a comment by The THES. A spokeswoman for the DFES said: "We are looking intothis." She added that the BA was an independent body that exercised its own judgement according to its code of practice and that external assessors were involved in the process.

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