"UNDERHAND elitism" in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research funding methodology has created an "unassailable super-elite" of four top institutions, according to vice chancellors from the 94 Group of research-led universities.
They complained that HEFCE's decision to give more money to departments which gained the new top 5-star grade than those which gained grade 5s in the 1997 research assessment exercise was a "sleight of hand" aimed to create a super-elite of universities.
The top four research institutions - Oxford, Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London - won 25 per cent of HEFCE's total research budget. The 12 members of the 94 Group, including York, Sussex, Surrey and Warwick, had to share 16 per cent of HEFCE's research cash.
Gordon Conway, vice chancellor of the University of Sussex, said that he has been forced to cut over Pounds 1 million from his research budget next year, despite increasing his university's quota of 5-rated departments from six in 1992 to 11 this time.
Professor Conway said that universities had been misled. "When the new 5-star grade was introduced we were led to believe it was to be simply an accolade with no funding implications," he said. "Indeed, it was suggested that this would be a way of recognising the excellence of Oxford and Cambridge and some of the London colleges without shifting large amounts of the research funding to them."
In fact, HEFCE awarded a premium of 20 per cent for 5-star departments.
Professor Conway argues that the research assessment panels assumed the 5-star would have no additional funding implications, and that the panels would have behaved differently if they had not been misled. "My impression is that they would have given more stars in some cases and fewer in others if they had known about the financial implications," he said. Universities' submissions to the research assessment might also have been different, he said.
Ron Cook, vice chancellor of York University, said that the decision to give more money to starred departments was totally unexpected. "And it must have been made in the full knowledge that it would lead to a disproportionate amount of money going into the four leading institutions," he said. "I'm not complaining, because we did rate well and got a lot of 5-stars, but HEFCE moved the goalposts in retrospect and that is a concern."
Peter Butterworth, senior pro-vice chancellor of Surrey University, said he was "very unhappy that the rules with respect to funding the star-rated departments were changed very late in the day".
A HEFCE spokesman said: "The council deliberately separated assessment from funding so that the panels, in making their judgements, would be able to apply the ratings scale and published criteria as objectively and consistently as possible. To achieve this it was important that they were not distracted by considerations of how ratings would later be used in funding allocations."
HEFCE denied that it had created a super elite. The spokesman said: "The council's objective was to maintain the level of funding for excellence, wherever it is found. This has been achieved. Seventy-five per cent of the funding continues to go to 28 institutions. The number of institutions with 5-stars cannot be described as a small elite - 48 institutions in England had departments rated 5-star."