Top-rated departments could opt out of the research assessment exercise under plans being considered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England at its annual conference held today in Birmingham.
"Where a submission gained a grade 5 or 5* for two earlier RAEs, there may be some benefit in prolonging the planning and funding horizon," said David Pilsbury, head of research policy at Hefce. Such departments would avoid taking part in every second RAE.
The Quality Assurance Agency, which runs the teaching quality assessment, has already adopted a "lighter touch" policy that aims to reduce the burden on those universities that can demonstrate teaching excellence.
The option for extending this lighter touch to research is one of several being considered by Hefce as part of its fundamental review of research policy and funding in England.
Dr Pilsbury described it as the only alternative to the present research assessment exercise that "is not only not fundamentally flawed but possibly provides some benefits".
An RAE that excluded top-rated departments from every other cycle would be cheaper for the funding councils. It would also free up time for researchers that is currently spent on preparing for each RAE.
However, Hefce also sees some drawbacks. For example, there is potential for game-playing by bumping up the number of staff in a 5 or 5* department once it has been assessed as such.
"It is something we need to explore," said Dr Pilsbury at today's discussion with vice-chancellors.