Four vice-chancellors considering a legal bid to overturn £185 million in grants made under this summer's Higher Education Innovation Fund have invoked open government rules to expose what they believe are fundamental flaws in the competition.
The vice-chancellors of Northumbria, Manchester Metropolitan, Salford and Central Lancashire universities, which were all denied funds under the promoting business links competition, have written to the Higher Education Funding Council for England demanding answers to 17 questions that they believe will highlight a catalogue of flaws, mistakes and inequalities in the handing of awards this year.
Answers they are seeking under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, include an explanation as to why there were apparent "differences between the published assessment criteria and the criteria used for marking the bids". They consider this to be a fundamental unfairness.
They are also demanding detailed information on how assessment judgements and final decisions were made.
In a joint letter to Howard Newby, Hefce chief executive, last week, the vice-chancellors say: "We all accept that Heif was a competitive process and that applications were judged on their merits. Our concerns arise from the overall results, which we consider to be in conflict with both government policy and the stated aims of Heif, as indicated in earlier correspondence. We do not understand how this disjunction occurred and we wish to know more about the administration of the process in order to satisfy ourselves that we and other universities were fairly treated."
Kel Fidler, Northumbria vice-chancellor, said: "I am extremely annoyed as ten people's jobs are on the line here as a result of this. The process totally ignores all that we have been doing in Heif-like activity over many years. It is a real smack in the face for us."
A spokesman for Hefce said the council had no comment to make beyond a statement issued when concerns were first reported by The Times Higher in July. Then, it said it was confident that the process, which involved four separate streams of assessors and an advisory award, was "robust and transparent".
"Understandably, proposers feel less happy when the results of a competitive bidding process are unwelcome," Hefce said.
The council has indicated that it would have preferred Heif money to have been allocated through a formula, rather than a competition, as will happen next year.