Bristol University this week became the latest institution to launch a bid to join the global super league, when it unveiled plans to invest more than Pounds 250 million in new research facilities and staff.
Hot on the heels of Manchester University, which announced a £400 million recruitment drive last week, Bristol said that over the next five years it would spend about £150 million on new buildings, as well as investing heavily in new staff to enhance priority research areas.
Bristol aims to be ranked among the top 50 universities in the world.
Eric Thomas, Bristol vice-chancellor, told The Times Higher that the time was right for major investment in a number of research-intensive universities that had successfully balanced their books.
He said: "We are autonomous institutions that can take the future into our own hands. We are set fair to do that now in a way we haven't been able to for a long time. " But while Manchester has voiced its intention to poach research megastars, Bristol will concentrate on attracting more promising junior researchers.
Professor Thomas said: "You can't sustain a place just by going out and buying big names. We need to grow our own talent."
He said the new infrastructure would include biosciences facilities and an arts and social sciences library. Work is under way on a nanotechnology research building.
The university was able to increase its borrowing substantially because it pushed its finances into the black. This year, it will have a surplus of Pounds 8 million, and it calculated that it needed £12 million to be self-sustainable.
The recent sale of Bristol's research station at Long Ashton poured an extra £36 million into the pot. As well as borrowing from the bank, the university planned a fundraising campaign to coincide with its forthcoming centenary celebrations. A team of consultants is speaking to potential donors to assess how much they might be able to contribute.
Professor Thomas, who wrote a recent report for the Government on the need for institutions to ramp up fundraising efforts, hopes that this campaign will raise more than £100 million.
But he insisted that his investment plans would not be allowed to destabilise the institution.
He said: "This isn't some frenzied, mad programme where we are creating an unsustainable university. Large amounts will be spent on refurbishment."
The university reassured its student union that it would not be dipping into income raised from top-up fees to boost its research status. Professor Thomas said: "We are very clear about the tuition-fee income. Its role is to improve the student experience."