The research assessment exercise should be replaced with a biennial peer review conducted by all university departments to produce ranked lists for each subject area, according to a proposal by Roger Williams, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.
These league tables would do away with the need for "coarse" RAE grades and would produce a "finer-grain" picture of research standards that could be used to distribute funding more evenly, argues Professor Williams, who is the new chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.
Professor Williams suggests in a paper that the 2001 RAE results could be the base for the new system. Next year, and every two years thereafter, each department would update its recent research achievements and staff changes.
Reports on the changes would be circulated to departments with the same RAE grade and to those one grade above and below. They would all be invited to produce a ranked list. These would be consolidated into an overall ranked list for each subject area.
Funding for research might be based on position in the ranked list as well as the number of staff declared. In future rounds, the list would be divided into sections, and departments in each section would rank each other.
Professor Williams says the views of many more individuals would influence the outcome.
He argues: "This could hardly fail to be an improvement."
A ranked list would be a finer instrument than RAE grades to use in making funding decisions and would also help to eliminate grade drift, he says.
The proposal would allow departments and institutions to get away from the "quite unnatural" five-year pulse of the RAE.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said Professor Williams's proposal was one of many likely to be considered as a successor to the RAE.
"The key test will be whether any replacement system will be robust enough for us to allocate £1 billion a year," he said.