An unprecedented alliance of university heads is gearing up for a fresh revolt against the 2008 research assessment exercise.
Vice-chancellors believe they were duped into agreeing to the plans for the sector-wide race for research ratings and grants. Only now are they becoming fully aware of other pressures being placed on universities, from the drive to fully account for research funds and the introduction of top-up fees.
Despite preparations for the 2008 RAE being under way, heads of the three main university factions are discussing alternatives, with a view to approaching the Government with proposals.
For the first time, the Russell Group of elite research universities, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, representing new universities, and the 94 Group of small research universities, are united in questioning the RAE.
Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group and Birmingham University vice-chancellor, and Michael Driscoll, chair of CMU and Middlesex University vice-chancellor, said the sector was jaded with the RAE.
Professor Sterling said: "The RAE plays games and focuses attention on the exercise in universities as if it's the only thing that matters.
Selectivity is here to stay and everyone knows the money cannot be spread thinly. The question is: which way is the best to do that?"
He said that universities would need to devote more resources to the services they offered students with the advent of top-up fees from 2006.
Professor Driscoll said: "We can all see from quite different perspectives the problems with the RAE in terms of what it's trying to achieve and the problems it creates. But the issue is whether we can find something or agree on something most universities feel is an improvement."
Alasdair Smith, chairman of the 94 Group and vice-chancellor of Sussex University, said his group backed the dual-support system of research funding but that it was willing to explore alternatives to the assessment.
One possibility could be to allocate the £1 billion a year in funding council grants on a formulaic basis similar to that used by the research councils. Alternatively, the research councils could simply allocate university research funding themselves.
But the proposals received short shrift from Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
He insisted that there was no chance of a change of heart in the Government and dismissed claims that universities could not manage full economic costing alongside the RAE. "This is a slightly bogus conflation of two different issues and is being used as an excuse. Full economic costing is about sustainable financial management of institutions. The RAE is about assessing the quality of research," he said.
But the discontent will add to growing opposition to the RAE.
A House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report published this week falls short of calling for the system to be scrapped, but it is critical of its impact on research in the UK.
A spokesperson for the Association of University Teachers said the union was "delighted" that others shared its views on the need to dispose of the RAE.
Chairs of the RAE panels are due to be announced next week.