Leading universities are making a multimillion-pound investment in academic posts to bolster their research strengths ahead of the next assessments in 2007.
Four universities are in the market for well over 300 professors and senior staff as they strive to convert their success in the last research assessment exercise into long-term strategic advances.
Nottingham University is recruiting for 20 new "research-led" professorships, the University of East Anglia is creating 16 new chairs and Sheffield University is advertising more than 50 new academic posts. (See more in the new THES Professional section, pages 23-25.) All three were big winners in this year's English funding allocations. Each received a real-terms rise of more than 12 per cent in research grants from the funding council to reward their excellent performances in the 2001 RAE.
Aberdeen University will fill more than 200 posts over the next three years. Its RAE-based grant rose this year from £9.7 million to Pounds 10.1 million, and it is in the middle of a ten-year, £150 million fundraising campaign that has already netted more than Pounds 40 million.
Principal C. Duncan Rice said its capacity to recruit the highest quality scholars was an "indispensable part" of the strategy. Some £9 million has been earmarked for the three-year recruitment campaign.
The moves are in line with the Roberts' report's call for institutions to develop research strategies. Nottingham intends to boost four "strategic areas", Sheffield says it is strengthening existing teams and developing new areas, and UEA is investing Pounds 80 million in teaching and research.
Jonathan Adams, founder of the Evidence consultancy, said: "What we may be seeing is a much more structured, well-managed approach to research strategy. People are getting more pragmatic about what's good and what isn't."
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, believes the moves are the results of the last RAE being put into practice. He said: "The whole point of the government's policy of research selectivity is to build up research in those units that are judged to be the best. Selective funding provides them with more money, and what they do with their money, by and large, is to buy more staff."
Dr Adams said this looked like the first phase of structured investment as universities looked to the next RAE. But Ian McNay, emeritus professor in higher education and management at Greenwich University, said this was unlikely to signal the start of a RAE transfer market because universities recognised that academic stars in one institution did not necessarily "transplant" well.
The RAE has channelled researchers into high-performing departments. In the 1992 exercise, 23 per cent of researchers worked in top 5 departments; by 1996, the proportion working in 5 or 5* departments had risen to 31 per cent and, by 2001, to 55 per cent.
The figure is set to soar further. Eight of the ten universities that got the most money for research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England this year received a real-terms rise of more than 10 per cent.
The big four - the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and University College and Imperial College London - each get Pounds 70 million to Pounds 80 million a year in research funding from Hefce, and each received a real-terms rise of more than 12 per cent this year.
The universities are looking beyond just the next RAE to the long term.
Sheffield plans a Pounds 7.3 million investment in posts that pro vice-chancellor Tony Crook said would lead to new income streams. "We are investing on the back of our success in the last RAE, ahead of the next RAE, and positioning ourselves for the long term to be a leading international player," he said.