Researchers who can demonstrate a decade of excellence will share the extra £20 million that the new 6* status will bring.
The board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England agreed this week to give the cash to departments that had gained the top 5* grade in both the 1996 and the 2001 research assessment exercises, known as "double firsts". The universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield each have at least three of these departments, as do University College, Imperial College and King's College, in London.
Funding for departments rated 5 will be restored to 2001-02 levels in real terms, reversing last year's 12 per cent cut, and funding for 5* departments will be maintained.
Some £18 million has been earmarked for departments rated 3a and 3b in seven "emerging" areas without a long tradition of research: nursing; other subjects allied to medicine; social work; art and design; communication, cultural and media studies; dance, drama and performing arts; and sports-related studies.
Overall, research will share more than £1 billion. The lion's share will go to departments rated 5* and 5. The rest will go to departments rated 4. It is not clear if this represents a cut for them.
Medical schools warned this week that any such cuts would be "disastrous".
Michael Powell, executive secretary of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, said: "Medical schools would inevitably have to reduce staffing, and this would have major implications for clinical service and teaching."
Clinical academics are often on honorary contracts with the National Health Service, dividing their time between patients, teaching and research. Any funding cuts will have a knock-on effect on consultant numbers.
* Scotland fears it could be dragged into research classifications it does not support in the wake of the English white paper.
Tony Axon, research officer for the Association of University Teachers Scotland, said: "If (the 6* label) is introduced, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council could be in the ludicrous position of having to use the 6* label for reasons of kudos and league-table positions despite there being little desire in Scotland for increased selectivity in research assessment."