A bidding war among universities seeking to host one of more than 70 Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning will begin in the new year amid claims that the policy is dangerously divisive.
The centres, announced in the higher education white paper, will attract between £200,000 and £500,000 a year for improving teaching and learning. The universities in which the centres will be based will also be able to bid for up to £2 million capital funding.
The government wants the centres to act as "beacons" of excellence, but experts, agencies and unions, while welcoming the money, have criticised this competitive approach.
They claim the policy threatens the culture of collaboration and support that has grown through agencies such as the Learning and Teaching Support Network, the Institute for Learning and Teaching and the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, since the 1997 Dearing report.
Lecturers' union Natfhe told the Higher Education Funding Council for England that the plan was "misguided" and an "inappropriate" way of expanding and improving provision for students.
The LTSN sees "danger lurking" in a policy that, "albeit unintentionally", implies that excellence in can be found only in a few areas across the country. "Up to 50 per cent of institutions will miss the mark," it said.
LTSN director Cliff Allan said: "We want to work with the new centres. We are not in direct opposition. Our concern is about unintended consequences.
In focusing on a few pockets of excellence, it sends a message that a significant proportion does not have excellent provision. I'm not sure that policy will encourage all teachers to strive for excellence.
"We have spent the past three years building networks of mutual support to improve teaching practice and encourage innovation."
Subject centres, which form part of the LTSN, have already reported a closing of ranks among institutions and departments as they prepare their bids.
Bids can come from any Hefce-funded institution, including further education colleges with more than 500 higher education students.
Partnership bids involving, for example, the National Health Service and the Teacher Training Agency, are also possible.
Hefce's consultation report and summary of responses was published online this week.