Nominee: 'secret soundings' decided REF subpanel chair

Rejected candidate says appointment process was 'shambles from start to finish'. Paul Jump reports

February 3, 2011

An academic whose nomination to chair the law subpanel in the 2014 research excellence framework was rejected has attacked the selection process as a "shambles".

The Higher Education Funding Council for England named the 36 subpanel chairs late last year, announcing that the law subpanel would be chaired by Gillian Douglas, professor of law and former head of Cardiff Law School.

However, the appointment process proved controversial after several subject associations complained that Dame Janet Finch, former vice-chancellor of Keele University and chair of the social science main panel, had rejected candidates they had nominated without explanation and had approached alternatives without consulting them.

Hefce then offered to allow the subject associations to nominate alternative candidates.

Sally Wheeler, acting head of the School of Law at Queen's University Belfast and chair of the Socio-Legal Studies Association, was nominated in both rounds but was rejected. She described the process as a "shambles from start to finish", in which nominees had been rejected on the basis of "secret soundings" taken from "people every legal academic in the country can name".

"Nobody knows what was said, nobody had an opportunity to correct anything that was wrong, but, again, who was discussed is public knowledge."

Professor Wheeler, a panellist in the 2001 and 2008 research assessment exercises and a former member of the Economic and Social Research Council's research grants board, added: "This is hardly a 21st-century standard of accountability, or a great start for a process that depends on trust and confidence. Did Janet Finch run Keele like this? If she did, I have no doubt that it was an interesting experience."

Hefce's specification for subpanel chairs stipulates "experience of chairing and ability to lead groups to consensus (and) carry the confidence of key stakeholders".

Professor Wheeler said she was sure "eyebrows have been raised" over "a subpanel chair being appointed without any (RAE) panel experience in a situation where there is now considerable mistrust and lack of confidence in the funding council and their not-very-secret advisers.

"I, as I am sure the whole academic legal community does, wish Professor Douglas the very best in undertaking what is now going to be an even more difficult task."

Professor Douglas did not reply to an invitation to comment. Hefce says in a statement that she was appointed following an "open process" and that her application "enjoyed the full support of the relevant subject associations".

It adds: "It was not necessary to have previous RAE experience specifically, as was the case for several of the subpanel chairs."

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