Whistleblowers: Minister backs BA in 'favouritism' dispute

September 12, 2003

The government was accused of allowing the British Academy to be "both judge and jury" over its accountability for millions of pounds of public money this week, as ministers decided to take no action over allegations of "old boys' favouritism" at the elite academic institution.

The THES reported last month that higher education minister Alan Johnson was examining concerns that BA fellows had an unfair advantage in the competition for the academy's £2 million centenary research project and that the decision-making process lacked fairness, accountability and independence.

But despite confirming this week that the Department for Education and Skills provides almost all the academy's funding for research with a £13.3 million annual grant, Mr Johnson said there was no need for government action because "the academy is an independent body and is responsible for using its own academic judgement in making its awards".

Campaigners said this response ignored The THES 's discovery that the academy published two different versions of criteria for the award - one in its call for proposals, and a substantially different set when it announced the winner: a fundamental procedural flaw that rendered the competition unfair and invalid, they claim.

"The alteration of the criteria... is an action so utterly disreputable that one would be surprised to see it happen even in the lowliest echelons of academe," said Gill Evans, policy director of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, and a former BA reader. "If the BA has no standards of propriety, what hope of honesty in its awards?"

BA secretary Peter Brown has repeatedly failed to explain why two different versions of the criteria were published, but he insisted this week that all applications were judged against the same set.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, who raised concerns with the minister on behalf of two of his constituents from the University of Sussex, said: "I am disappointed that the minister seems content to leave this entirely in the hands of the British Academy, which is being asked to be both judge and jury.

"I can only hope that the minister and his team are taking action behind the scenes. If not, the message will go out to the British Academy that they are unhealthily immune from external action."

The THES first reported in June that the academy had drawn criticism when it awarded £1 million of its £2 million centenary award to BA fellow Clive Gamble of Southampton University but decided to withhold the other £1 million. A THES investigation discovered that BA fellows competing for the money were given access to information about their competitors' proposals while non-fellows were not.

Mr Baker's concerns that this gave fellows an unfair advantage were backed by Sussex University vice-chancellor Alastair Smith. In a letter to the BA secretary, he says: "You ran a competition in which some participants knew the identities of their competitors while others did notI I think most people would feel that such asymmetryI is regrettable."

But Mr Johnson concludes: "I understand that the names and titles for projects only became available (to BA fellows) at the shortlisted stage. It is not clear to me what advantage could be gained by British Academy fellows through this process."

The THES also discovered that the Sussex research team - led by two non-fellows now represented by Mr Baker - that reached the three-project final shortlist had raised serious objections to an external referee, claiming a potential conflict of interest. It was told: "It is not normal practice to give candidates an opportunity to object to the external assessor."

Mr Johnson concludes: "The British Academy has a code of practice governing the treatment of all applications for research awards... [It] will review award decisions to ensure that appropriate processes have been followed in cases where applicants specifically request thisI There is no external body with the requisite expertise to substitute its academic judgement for that of the academy."

Mr Baker said: "Given the nature of the allegations, and the fact that the government provides nearly all the funding for research programmes, a more robust response would have been appropriate."

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