The massive improvement in the results of this year's research assessment exercise - due on December 14 - will increase financial pressure on the funding council. Half the staff who were returned in this year's exercise work in departments or other units expected to gain the top 5 and 5* grades. The price of rewarding the improvement is put at £170 million.
To cope with the cash shortfall, funding chiefs want to delay using the results of the RAE for a year. This would give the funding council time to press the Treasury for money to foot the bill. The bid for the extra money has gone to the Department for Education and Skills, which will lobby the Treasury during the spending review. If increased funding for research is forthcoming, it will be announced in July 2002 - too late to be included in the allocations for that year.
Funding council managers put the proposals to the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England earlier this month. The board will make a decision on whether to postpone use of the results at its meeting on December 13.
But some institutions have been relying on getting the cash on time. They have employed high-profile staff to boost their research standing. Without the money, some elite universities will struggle next year. The funding council has promised that no institution's grant will be cut by more than 2 per cent in real terms next year.
Institutions that benefit from research funding - about a third of the money goes to five institutions - lever the cash to grab the lion's share of research council grants, industry contracts and charity research grants.
Fears that research funding might become further concentrated come from an ongoing review of support for PhD students. The review will examine whether departments need to achieve a critical mass to take on PhD students.