REF draws fire for musical chairs

Law subject associations irate at precipitate move by Hefce to fill subpanel post. Paul Jump writes

October 28, 2010

Funding chiefs have offered an olive branch in a row with law subject associations over who should chair the law subpanel for the 2014 research excellence framework.

The subject associations had been angered that the candidates they nominated were rejected without explanation by Dame Janet Finch, chair of the main panel for the social sciences.

They were also upset that Dame Janet had identified and approached an alternative candidate before nominees were informed that their applications had been rejected.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England says on its website that "subpanel chairs will be appointed through an open application process, on the basis of written applications".

But it also says that the funding councils "reserve the right to amend the membership of REF panels to ensure the effective conduct of the exercise".

Counter to the approach taken in the final research assessment exercise, it is not obligatory for REF subpanel chairs to be nominated by recognised "nominating bodies", including subject associations such as the Society of Legal Scholars and the Socio-Legal Studies Association.

However, candidates are still entitled to approach the bodies for endorsement.

One source close to the subject associations said they were further irritated when Hefce tried to "bulldoze" them into endorsing its candidate in what they regarded as an unrealistically short time frame and without giving them sufficient information to judge whether the candidate met Hefce's own criteria.

Those criteria include having previous experience of RAE, research council or other peer-review exercises.

Another source described the process as a "shambles", and Times Higher Education understands that the associations had been considering their options before Hefce contacted them to offer to slow the process down and give them time to nominate their own candidates. However, it reserves the right to reject such nominations.

It is believed that some of the subject associations will resubmit some of their original nominations - all respected senior academics - if they are still willing to stand.

A spokesman for Hefce said: "The funding bodies are appointing the panel chairs through an established, sound process in accordance with the Nolan principles (of standards in public life).

"The chief executives of the funding bodies will make the appointments against the published criteria, with the advice of the main panel chairs and input from the academic associations."

Andrew Sanders, head of the University of Birmingham Law School and vice-chair of the Committee of Heads of University Law Schools, said: "The law associations welcome Hefce listening to their concerns, but whether Hefce's proposal is acceptable depends on how it is implemented, and we are considering how to respond."

David Cowan, vice-chair of the Socio-Legal Studies Association, said it would not be appropriate to comment while negotiations were at a "delicate stage".

Applications for the positions closed earlier this month and the successful candidates are expected to be announced in November.

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