Northern universities are confident that they can redraw the UK research map. Anna Fazackerley reports.
Research-rich northern universities this week warned institutions in the Golden Triangle that their era of domination may be ending.
The latest figures on research income from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that in 2004-05 Cambridge and Oxford universities were still in the lead, but key players in the North were pushing up the league.
Manchester University, which launched an aggressive bid for ascendancy following its merger last year, is now in fifth place.
The university is particularly pleased that it is catching up with the capital's two research powerhouses, Imperial College London and University College London.
Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester, said: "I would definitely like there to be a shifting among the top five in the next five years. It is healthy to have a country with a top grouping rather than a top one or two."
She added: "We've never aspired to be an Oxford or a Cambridge. We are different and have different aspirations. But in terms of research quality and cash we should be up there at the top."
Sheffield University has shunted up to seventh place in the table, which excludes the underpinning research money distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
This has caused some raising of eyebrows among pro vice-chancellors because Sheffield was 12th in the research cash league in the preceding year.
Geof Tomlinson, pro vice-chancellor for research at Sheffield, said: "The Golden Triangle had better watch their backs."
Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle universities - all members of the new N8 alliance of northern research universities - are in the top 15 for research cash.
David Secher, chief executive of the N8 group, said: "What is interesting is that the N8 universities together now have more than 2.5 times the research spend of Cambridge and more than Oxford and Cambridge put together."
He added: "I think what we need in this country is a strong national strategy for attracting investment from other countries and for demonstrating that we have in the UK more than two universities of global reputation."
Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor at Cambridge, said: "Research is terribly important. But critical mass is more important to us than coming first. That enables us to do a lot of interesting things."
He added: "It is vital that there should be a competitive environment. Simply giving resources to Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial makes no sense. We need this sort of competition."