Lee Elliot Major and Matt Sandy report on a surge in external reviews for departments.
Academic consultants are being paid up to £1,000 a visit to help university departments prepare for the 2008 research assessment exercise, The Times Higher can reveal.
One former RAE referee estimates that a quarter of departments have commissioned external reviews to assess the strengths of their research in the run-up to the assessment.
The majority of research-intensive universities surveyed by The Times Higher said they had used external consultants. One university replied that these were mostly academics who had sat on RAE panels for previous assessments; they were paid "usually £1,000 for an on-site visit" but "considerably less (Pounds 300 to £500) for subsequent at-distance evaluation".
One vice-chancellor from a Russell Group institution said: "We have used externals; it can be useful in terms of calibrating our international work."
Former RAE panellists, however, suggested that most academics working as external reviewers could expect £500 for their work, which was conducted on an informal and "friendly" basis. Typically the work involved reading paperwork, visiting a department and writing a report.
Consultancy is said to be widespread across all academic disciplines. But it does not always focus purely on RAE preparations - many external reviews assess the general strengths and options for university departments.
One former RAE panel chair said that consultancy work was "reasonably widespread" across the sector, with "20 to 25 per cent of departments having external audits". Philip Alexander, professor of post-biblical Jewish literature at Manchester University and chair of the Middle Eastern and African studies 2001 RAE panel, said that external reviews were "widely used".
But Judie Newman, professor of American studies at Nottingham University and chair of the American studies 2001 RAE panel, warned that "institutions would be pretty unwise to place too much faith in RAE 2001 panel members"
as their expertise was in effect seven years old and the rules for the 2008 assessment were different.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and chair of the business management studies 2001 RAE panel, added that it was "not possible to manipulate the system - you can only help at the margins".
Professor Cooper said that business lecturers could earn £2,000 to Pounds 3,000 a day for consultancy work in the private sector.
The survey of Russell Group and 1994 Group institutions revealed that most were planning to submit only internationally recognised staff to the 2008 RAE.
WILLETS: SPIN-OFF WORK NEGLECTED
David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, told academics and investors this week that one way to improve the research assessment exercise would be to recognise more explicitly the role academics played in technology transfer.
At a conference on university spin-offs, Mr Willetts said the RAE should be improved rather than replaced.
"The RAE needs to be adjusted to reward academic time spent on developing research into licences or spin-offs," he said.
"Third-stream activities fall between the cracks because the RAE rewards academics (only) for their papers."
Mr Willetts was speaking at a conference that had been organised by the British Business Angels Association and by the University Companies Association. The gathering was held at Imperial College London.