Staff in Imperial College London's top-rated neuroscience and medicine divisions have been warned that their jobs may be at risk, prompting fears that a good research assessment exercise result may no longer provide academics with a lifeline.
Sources at Imperial told The Times Higher that the institution privately announced plans to axe about nine academic jobs in its neuroscience and mental health division and ten in its medical division.
The university is believed to have sent emails to selected employees in the divisions, warning them that their perfomance is not up to scratch and that unless they can improve their ranking they will have to consider a redundancy package.
This has been driven by the fact that both divisions are running a deficit.
But the news caused shock inside and outside the institution, because of the division's high ranking in the RAE in 2001. Imperial achieved the maximum 5* or 5 ratings for the four key clinical research categories that encompass neuroscience and medicine.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, which represents staff at Imperial, said: "It stretches the bounds of credulity that you achieve 5* or 5 status and your reward is to lose your job."
Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial, said that some job losses were inevitable in most universities in the current financial climate.
He said: "In spite of the recent press coverage, this is not a problem confined to Oxford and Cambridge universities.
"It seems to me to be nonsense for the Government to expand the university system without funding it properly."
Peter Cotgreave, director of the Save British Science campaign group, said:
"It just proves that, whatever the Government says, the problems facing universities are so bad that even if you are Imperial and even if you have 5*-rated research it is difficult to make things work.
"The 5* rating assumes that virtually everything you do is internationally excellent, so these people must be good.
"I very much doubt whether Imperial was in the business of leaving people out (of its RAE submission) to cook the books," he added.
Imperial issued a statement this week confirming that in 2003-04 its medicine division made a loss of £712,000 and its neuroscience division made a loss of £647,000.
Stephen Smith, principal of the faculty of medicine, said: "The financial losses in these divisions are unsustainable, and we must tackle them now to maintain Imperial's position as a world-class institution for teaching and research in basic and clinical sciences."