Academics at Nottingham Trent University are threatening to strike after being told to "focus their efforts on teaching" if they cannot pay their own research bills.
In a memo sent to all staff last summer, Nottingham Trent pro vice-chancellor Peter Jones confirms that the university has been subsidising staff research activity from its teaching budget to the tune of £3 million a year and can no longer afford to do so. Only research that pays for itself will now be allowed.
The memo says that academics in areas not funded by external sources must "refocus their efforts on teaching", develop business-linked "third-stream" income or develop "new cost-effective academic programmes".
A section headed "research" says: "We have invested heavily in our researchers, with recent estimates suggesting about £3 million per annum of our teaching income is used to support research. This cannot continue.
"We have recognised that our support of research will be increasingly selective, and we know that this will present challenges for many researchers and for management. In future the university will only be able to support abatement from teaching for research activity if it is entirely supported by funding from external sources."
Staff were alarmed that the emailed memo, sent in July, retains original drafting comments that have been crossed out electronically but are still legible.
The draft said: "We have repeatedly found ourselves spending more than our income." This was changed to "unless we take action, we will find that we are spending more than our income".
The memo explains that the university faces "difficult decisions" after the Higher Education Funding Council for England cut its research funding for this year.
A line in the draft said that the university had to "bring (its) operating deficit under control". This now reads: "Unless we are able to avoid an operating deficit, we will end up draining our reserves in order to pay our way."
Lecturers' union Natfhe said Nottingham Trent branch members had already carried a motion confirming that they wished to be balloted over taking industrial action against the planned changes. They believe they represent a fundamental assault on academics' contractual right to carry out research and scholarly activity.
Natfhe regional official Sue Davis said: "We are seeking urgent meetings with the vice-chancellor about this to avoid what would be a serious bout of industrial action."
The university this week declined to say how many staff and which subject areas would be affected as plans were still under discussion with departmental deans. But it said the majority of staff understood and accepted the need for change, which would be handled "sensitively" when it affected individuals.