The concentration of research funding on a small elite of universities should be intensified until the UK has no more than 30 or so institutions specialising in postgraduate research. This is the recommendation of Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, who recently delivered his report on the future of universities' intellectual property to Government.
Professor Wellings told Times Higher Education that the sector should continue to diversify so that by 2020 each region has just one or two major graduate schools.
But critics said that this would reduce dozens of universities to a teaching-only role, no longer offering PhDs or conducting research.
Speaking in advance of a keynote speech at this week's Times Higher Education "Making the most of your university's intellectual property" conference, Professor Wellings said: "As you look forward over (a) 10- to 15-year frame, I suspect that further differentiation in the sector will emerge. The big driver in that will be how we develop graduate schools and PhD students in the future.
"I think what we will see is that every region in the UK will have a very small number of institutions which are graduate schools, with other institutions around them feeding in, because that will produce all sorts of efficiencies and benefits for the PhD experience."
Such schools would "run in tandem" with technology-transfer offices, which will "draw out new intellectual property".
In his report to Government, Professor Wellings highlighted the "very large variation" in the number of PhD students completing programmes at different universities.
The report said that over the five years between 2002 and 2006, 29 universities graduated fewer than 100 PhD students each and the median was only 281 per university. In contrast, 34 UK universities produced 75 per cent of PhD graduates - and these produced 78 per cent of all patents.
In total, 23 English universities receive 75 per cent of all Higher Education Funding Council for England research funding, and 18 universities receive 75 per cent of funds from the research councils. All are pre-1992 institutions.
The report said: "Over the next 10-15 years, the cumulative effects of research resource concentration ... should be exploited to enhance both the basic research platform and the exploitation of novel ideas. Inevitably this will continue to drive the diversification of the sector."
Professor Wellings accepted that his views would be controversial, and that there were questions about how the rest of the sector - especially specialist institutions - "fits into the model".
"Legitimately there will be some smaller, specialised institutions where they are already doing world-class research, but with a smaller volume, and the question will be how do you create an environment where these institutions can still flourish? ... That's a very important debate to have," said Professor Wellings.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ think-tank, which represents post-1992 institutions, rejected Professor Wellings' vision.
"I think it's the wrong idea. You can't stop academics doing research," he said, and that the leading research-intensive universities were "pulling the drawbridge up".
"At a moment's reflection we see that if that drawbridge had been drawn up at a time in the past we wouldn't have a Warwick, for example - they're not one of the historic golden universities yet they are one of our best research universities."
Professor Ebdon said Million+ universities were "nurseries of research talent" for larger institutions. "If we exclude them from being able to do research then clearly there is no way we can develop this new talent."
|Universities: Biggest PhD providers|
|Region||No. of PhDs graduated (2002-06)|
|• Eastern England|
|University of Cambridge||4,798|
|University of East Anglia||1,004|
|• East Midlands|
|University of Nottingham||2,236|
|University College London||2,951|
|Imperial College London||2,7|
|• North Eastern|
|• North Western|
|University of Manchester||3,450|
|University of Liverpool||1,477|
|• South Eastern|
|University of Oxford||3,712|
|University of Southampton||1,958|
|• South Western|
|University of Bristol||1,880|
|University of Exeter||825|
|• West Midlands|
|University of Birmingham||2,722|
|University of Warwick||1,315|
|• Yorkshire & Humberside|
|University of Sheffield||2,179|
|University of Leeds||2,152|
|• Northern Ireland|
|Queen’s University Belfast||1,258|
|University of Ulster||668|
|University of Edinburgh||2,344|
|University of Glasgow||1647|
|Source: Intellectual Property and Research Benefits by Paul Wellings|