The formula that will be used to convert the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise into cash allocations to English universities next month may help "preserve old hierarchies", the chairman of the group representing post-1992 universities complained this week.
Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ think-tank and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said he was "disappointed" by a decision by the Higher Education Funding Council for England not to fund any research found to be of "national significance" (1*). He added that Hefce's decision to also ring-fence funding for science subjects, which are usually strongest in traditional universities, would further protect the traditional research elite from funding cuts.
He told Times Higher Education: "I will be livid if (come the funding allocations) my successful researchers are supposed to pay for people who have had a large amount of investment and haven't been able to deliver world-leading research."
Hefce confirmed last week in broad terms how it would dispense quality-related research (QR) funding for 2010-11 and beyond, based on the RAE. The RAE findings, which showed that research excellence was widely spread across the sector, sparked fears among large research-intensive universities that they will lose funding when final allocations are revealed on 5 March.
The formula promises that research in the top three of four categories (4*, 3* and 2*) will be funded wherever it is found. "World-leading" (4*) research will be funded at a rate seven times higher, and "internationally excellent" (3*) research at a rate three times higher, than "internationally recognised" (2*) research.
This should mean a wider distribution of funding than at present. But money will also swing back towards the research-intensive universities because Hefce has decided to protect the total proportion of funding currently going to science, engineering, maths and medicine at the expense of other disciplines.
This is expected to divert about £50 million away from arts-based subjects, where the research excellence of the post-1992 institutions is concentrated.
Professor Ebdon said that while his part of the sector was "very pleased" that Hefce had agreed to fund excellence wherever it was found and he was expecting "significantly more" funding to flow to Million+ universities than previously, he was disappointed that research of "national significance" (1*) will not receive any funding, given its importance to "UK plc".
He also criticised the steepness of the funding algorithm, saying it rewarded "games-playing", such as the selective omission of academics from the RAE in order to boost an institution's research rating.
Wendy Piatt, the director-general of the Russell Group, welcomed the science-subject safeguard. Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group, said that the formula would preserve movement among universities, which was "good news" for his group of smaller research-intensive institutions.
The formula will be used to dispense a total of £1.106 billion of mainstream QR funding in 2009-10. Other elements bring the total QR pot to £1.572 billion for 2009-10.
An indicative analysis by Times Higher Education of how the formula will translate into funding suggests that a wider distribution of funding is likely.
The analysis, which is for illustrative purposes only and does not factor in the decision to safeguard the science subjects or any discretionary moderation Hefce may apply, shows that where previously 90 per cent of all mainstream QR funding goes to 38 institutions, it could now go to 49. It suggests that about 28 institutions that previously received no QR funding can now expect to receive some.