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Leading question fuels ad row

TWO PROFESSORS from Durham University have provoked a bizarre academic barney by referring a rival educational research establishment to the Advertising Standards Authority.

No less a body than the National Foundation for Educational Research has run into

trouble with the people from Durham for claiming to be "Britain's leading educational research organisation".

Now, due to a complaint from professors Carol Fitz-Gibbon and Peter Tymms, it must provide conclusive evidence for the claim - or face a humiliating climb- down.

The advertising authority, more used to dealing with commercial shock tactics or the wild claims of fundamentalist preachers, has asked for "documentary evidence, such as an independent survey or other published data that compares NFER with other research institutions".

If it fails, the foundation will be destined for a place in advertising's hall of shame. There it will join Richard Branson's Virgin group, the consistently outrageous Benetton and the American Evangelist Morris Cerullo, who claimed he could make infertile couples have babies.

Closer to home, Metropolitan University's offer of the "UK's leading public relations masters degree" came a cropper, as did Clarendon College in Nottingham's description of itself as "the best general further education college in England".

There is, however, some hope from the case of British Airways, which this year won the right to continue using its "World's Favourite Airline" slogan after showing that more people flew on its planes than any rival company.

The foundation's case is similar: over the past four years it has drawn in pound;4 million of research, way ahead of its nearest rival,

London University's Institute of Education.

Dr Seamus Hegarty, director of the foundation, said he had been surprised by the complaint: "If you look at the volume and quality of our research and the volume and quality of our publications, our status within the professional community nationally and internationally, the number and diversity of sponsors who have come to us for work, it would be difficult to see how anyone can question our claim to be the premier educational research institution."

Professors Tymms and Fitz-Gibbon, more used to acting as thorns in the side of the Office for Standards in Education, point out in their complaint that there is no independent comparison of the foundation's work with that of university departments.

The foundation is not eligible to participate in the universities' research assessment exercise, in which Durham achieved a rating of four out of five in 1996.

The National Foundation for Educational Research was set up in 1946 to undertake "research and development projects on issues of current interest in all sectors of education and training". Its constitution stipulates it must be independent of Government, and it is funded by research contracts and publishing profits.

The advertising authority's judgment is expected in autumn.

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