Queen final judge in cash row

March 17, 2000

Exeter University has pulled the plug on research of international standing because it will be ineligible for the research assessment exercise, writes Phil Baty.

Now the Queen is being asked for a ruling on the withdrawal of funding for the project on the medieval sculptures in Exeter Cathedral.

One manager has already conceded that the university has largely lost the "academic and moral" side of the argument.

The Association of University Teachers has petitioned the Queen, as Exeter's visitor, to rule on the dispute that highlights academics' concern that the periodic scramble for research funding is damaging research and eroding academic freedom.

Avril Henry, a professor in the School of English, was given Pounds 4,631 to complete an interactive computer application providing an explanatory catalogue of the cathedral sculptures, written with conservator Anna Hulbert. She had agreed a two-year research-only contract that would run until her full retirement in July 2000.

Exeter withdrew the funding when it emerged that a change in the timetable of the RAE meant the work would not be eligible for the 2001 exercise because Professor Henry would have retired by then.

In May 1999, the university's research committee decided to claw back Professor Henry's remaining Pounds 3,364 and redeploy it within the school. The school's acting director of research, Diane Purkiss, told her: "I'm sure the project is worthwhile in itself, but the awful truth is that we can't get any RAE joy from it, and the money could be spent on something more 'returnable'.

"I wish I could feel that the university had higher, holier motives for encouraging research."

Professor Henry complained to head of school Peter New, who accepted that "the first of the university's aims is not to maximise its income from RAEs but to 'advance research'. Your project is research of international standing and support of it would further that aim." But he said the research committee had given a grant to the school, not to any individual, strictly for purposes that would improve the school's standing in the RAE.

He said: "On academic and moral grounds your case is extremely strong; but the officers of the university and the school have an obligation to maximise the benefit to the institution of the funds devolved to them. I find that they have acted in accordance with the managerial briefs they hold, and I therefore have to uphold the decision against you."

Sir Geoffrey Holland, the vice-chancellor, rejected Professor Henry's attempt to mount a formal grievance against Mr New and declined to set up a grievance committee to hear her case.

The Association of University Teachers, acting on behalf of Professor Henry, petitioned the Queen as visitor, arguing that Sir Geoffrey acted unconstitutionally in denying the grievance. The AUT also claims that Sir Geoffrey could not rule that Mr New had handled the case adequately when he was the object of the grievance.

Professor Henry claims that the university has ignored its mission statement commitment to "advance research" and is guilty of age discrimination. She is demanding the immediate reinstatement of the withdrawn money and the resources to complete her project.

A spokesman for the university said this week that the university could not comment on the petition but refuted any suggestion that the vice-chancellor blocked procedures, saying his decision was valid under the university statutes.

Professor Henry is due to retire in less than four months, but the visitor has yet to reply to the petition - which was lodged in September.

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