Research universities in the North are lobbying ministers to challenge the supremacy of the "self-confident" golden triangle in the South East, it has emerged.
The "N8" group of northern universities is positioning itself in Parliament as "the new global power base in Britain". Its members say their combined research wealth rivals that of Oxbridge, Imperial College London and University College London.
Vice-chancellors from the group, which includes Newcastle, Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and York universities, said they were confident of extra support from Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is keen to use universities to foster economic growth in the North.
The N8 group has presented its case in a full-page advert in this month's Parliamentary Brief magazine, widely read by ministers and civil servants.
Brian Cantor, vice-chancellor of York, said: "There is a certain degree of excessive self-confidence about the golden triangle. I came from Oxford and I'm not against concentration and selectivity. But it is an unarguable case that the country can't develop the way it wants based upon just the South East or just three universities."
Figures show that northern universities are profiting from strong relationships with regional development agencies, receiving £189 million in 2005-06. This dwarfs investment in the South East, which has a budget of £20 million.
Christopher Edwards, vice-chancellor of Newcastle, which is developing a 23-acre former brewery site for research, said: "Oxford and Cambridge have fantastic advantages, but they also have disadvantages. Instead of complaining that the distribution of RDA money is disgraceful, they should realise this is a result of an important collaborative effort."
Alan Gilbert, president of the newly merged Manchester University, said: "We are not far short of matching these (golden triangle) institutions in terms of our research and research culture."
He added: "Discussions with people in the Treasury suggest they are aware that if there is a downturn in the South East economy it will be important to have powerful city regions elsewhere."
Ian Lesley, Cambridge pro vice-chancellor, warned against dilution of investment across the country. He said: "One of the great strengths of the UK compared with the rest of Europe is that we are not afraid to concentrate resources. If you do not allow excellence to flourish, you will not have universities that are in the top five or six in the world."
A spokesperson for Oxford stressed that not only northern universities had a strong regional agenda. She said: "We consider ourselves an international university, but we are constantly aware of the role we play locally."