More than 100 new chairs are being created by UK universities in a multimillion-pound restructuring drive aimed at securing them top marks in the next research assessment exercise.
As research excellence continues to be concentrated in high-flying departments, some institutions are thought to be offering salaries in excess of Pounds 70,000 to secure the best people.
In a move unprecedented in recent years, Queen Mary, University of London, is advertising up to 48 professorial positions in The THES this week.
Competition for top researchers to form cores of new groups is intensifying more than three years ahead of the next RAE, with chairs also being created at Royal Holloway, Birmingham and Manchester. These follow similar initiatives at Nottingham (20 new chairs), Sheffield (12), East Anglia (16) and Aberdeen.
The drive is being matched by efforts to persuade key staff to remain in post, in some cases by giving them promotion to ensure that they are not lured away.
Uncertainty about the form of the next RAE has increased pressure to act now to strengthen departments, and hence to secure future funding.
Queen Mary's recruitment drive involves 21 chairs in the humanities, law and social science, and the remainder in science and engineering.
Adrian Smith, principal of the college, confirmed that the initiative was an explicit attempt to boost department assessments to at least a 5 rating in the next RAE, expected in 2007.
"Anything less than 4 will not be funded and will cost a university millions of pounds, as happened in the last RAE," he said.
"This is a competitive situation, and we must invest in the highest quality researchers - hence our decision to invest in new chairs."
Queen Mary's priorities were drawn up after an internal mock RAE. This produced casualties, picking out 3a-rated chemistry as one department unlikely to make the grade without a £4 million investment.
As a result, the academic board decided last week to stop recruiting chemistry undergraduates. Staff will be moved elsewhere in the college.
Professor Smith said this had been a hard decision, but 3a-graded departments would not be funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Morag Sciach, head of Queen Mary's School of English, which is seeking three new chairs, said there was a "lot of excitement" in the college over the strategy. She added that a number of postdoctoral fellowships and studentships would accompany the appointments.
Royal Holloway, University of London, is creating research-led posts, including 14 new chairs, as part of a £4 million strategic investment.
Stephen Hill, the principal of Royal Holloway, said this would not only build on the quality of research at the college but would also have implications for tuition.
"Top-class researchers make excellent teachers, and students benefit from the enhanced quality of the education they receive," he said.
Jane Usherwood, director of personnel services at Birmingham University, said that an as-yet undecided number of the new 80 positions would be chairs.
She also confirmed that Birmingham would negotiate packages on a case-by-case basis to retain key academics and teams that might be tempted by offers from other institutions.
It is understood that Manchester will appoint a significant number of new chairs next year, as a result of a new strategy arising from its merger with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
One lecturer at Loughborough University said preparations for the next RAE had already begun in his department. He said: "We have recruited three new staff so far, while others are being rapidly promoted to make them too expensive to pinch. People are trying to pre-empt the musical chairs."
Jonathan Adams, founder of the consultancy Evidence, said the early recruitment drives were the result of sensible planning and strategic analysis.
He predicted that the move would bring good teams together in single places, while departments that achieved less might end up struggling.
"It is good for excellent research and for the people who are doing it - who are getting recognised and promoted," he said.
"For a lot of academics, though, it will feel slightly less amenable than in the past as more will be expected of them." He added that more competitive salaries for particular chairs were being touted by some institutions.
Universities UK warned that the rush to create new professorial posts could cause staff recruitment problems at many institutions.
In a recent report, the organisation said that removing funding from grade 4-rated departments would put at risk "innovative research of disciplinary, economic and social benefit".