Job losses up to vice-chancellor level are likely to follow the results of the research assessment exercise next week, it is being predicted.
The results of RAE 2008 will be published in full in Times Higher Education on 18 December.
Academics in 67 different research fields will have the quality of their work graded on a four-point scale - from the top grade of 4*, through 3*, 2* to 1*. The results will determine the allocation of more than £1.5 billion in research funding to universities each year.
RAE 2008 will also establish a new pecking order for research excellence for the first time since the previous RAE in 2001.
So much is at stake that sector heads this week predicted serious consequences for those who underperform.
"If you have got a department that a university has invested (in) but really doesn't come off in the RAE, the university is faced with only really one choice, which is to disinvest," one vice-chancellor from the Russell Group of 20 research-intensive universities told Times Higher Education.
He said that tight funding following the RAE will be compounded by the current recession.
Also contemplating their futures could be senior-level university staff.
"I certainly know that some vice-chancellors are worried about what their own (university's) results will mean for their future," said one head, who asked to remain anonymous.
"You cannot underestimate how important the RAE is to the sector. If people have gone in and said they are going to change things and it does not turn out the way they intended, it is a serious issue ... I personally think some vice-chancellors will go."
Stand by for spin
There are also warnings that confusion will reign over the results as universities "spin" the data published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) in the way that makes them look the best.
Martin Humphries, head of the faculty of life sciences at the University of Manchester, warned that some universities would inevitably fail to disclose the volume of academic staff they had submitted in order to claim excellence.
"There will be claims around (departments) coming top because they got the largest percentage of 4* ... but they will only have submitted a few people," he said, adding that it was the aggregate of quality and volume that he thought was important.
Data revealing the proportion of research-active staff submitted for the RAE were also originally supposed to have been published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) alongside the RAE results. But these plans were dropped in October after complaints from some institutions that the guidance on eligibility produced by Hefce was unclear.
The lack of data has angered some members of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, some of whose members have previously submitted a higher proportion of their research-active academics to the RAE than some larger Russell Group institutions.
In Times Higher Education today, Brian Cantor, vice-chancellor of the University of York, a 1994 Group institution, writes that the raw scores achieved by departments will be "meaningless" if there is no indication of what proportion of staff were entered. "(The omission) has serious implications for academics as individuals and for equality of opportunity," he writes.
But the Russell Group vice-chancellor countered this and said that measuring research intensity was a "sideshow" and the data on the proportion of staff submitted were "meaningless" because they would not be used to determine funding allocations.
"I know Steve Smith (chair of the 1994 Group and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter) gets upset because he wants to try to establish that the 1994 universities are more research intensive ... (but) the fact that Exeter might say 'we are more research intensive', I don't give a damn frankly. It doesn't tell me anything about them," he said.
Attempts to get Hesa to release data that could have been used as a proxy for the missing submissions data have failed.
Hesa's board last week agreed to supply proxy measures alongside the RAE 2008 results. This week, however, Hesa said that it could not supply these data by 18 December.
The debacle was criticised by a vice-chancellor of one 1994 Group university, who said: "As its board has said, I think Hesa should do everything it can to make the data available for publication on the same day as the RAE results."
'AFFECTING FUTURE PROSPECTS'
"It has been stressful, it would be naive to say that it hasn't been," John Diamond said of the preparation for the RAE.
The research fellow at the Centre for Local Policy Studies at Edge Hill University said the RAE could have an important effect on the promotion opportunities for people.
"You want to do well, as perceived by your peers, regardless of how flawed you think the system is, and you see the implications for the people you work with.
"If I say I'm laid back, then I sound complacent; if I say I've had sleepless nights, you might tell me to get a life ... there are people to whom this is important. It can have an effect on promotion opportunities or your ability to move (jobs)."
The department received a 3* ranking in 2001, and has this year entered 25 people in the social policy and administration category.
'IMPROVING TO STAND STILL'
In 2001, the departments were both rated at the highest level, 5*, so Martin Humphries, head of faculty, has high expectations. But he knows that mergers can create oddities and that the results will reflect the success of the integration of the departments and his approach to organising the faculty, which has focused on removing boundaries that can impede interdisciplinary collaboration.
The department contains about 240 academics and has grown by about 50 per cent since the last RAE. Most staff have been submitted to the RAE this year. The universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Dundee are the faculty's closest competitors.
But Professor Humphries worries that, with competitors also increasing the number of high-quality academics, his improvements will not necessarily translate into more money: "You have to improve to stand still."
'THE LEVEL OF ANXIETY IS BUILDING'
"I would hope that we are of national, if not international standing," said Neil Forbes, a professor in the international studies department at Coventry University.
"The level of anxiety is building - I think it's a human tendency to worry that you won't do as well as you think that you deserve to do," Professor Forbes said.
In 2001 Coventry achieved a 4* in politics and international studies.
"It is difficult to predict what will happen (this year) because the structure has changed."
This year, about 15 staff have been entered into the RAE unit.
"However well an individual unit does, unless the university is of international rank then there is the big concern that the slice of the cake will be extremely small."