Scottish nursing experts fear their discipline could face a double setback through controversial funding council proposals on teaching and research that could threaten at least 150 research jobs.
The Association of University Teachers Scotland has urged the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to reconsider the timing of any changes to avoid destabilisation of the sector before a promised ministerial strategic review this summer.
Shefc is consulting on changes to teaching funding, which nursing departments fear will mean a cut of 9.5 per cent. They have accused Shefc of ignoring a consultants' report that put them in a higher income band.
David Wann, Shefc's deputy chief executive, said that while the consultants had done "a decent job", there was not enough evidence supporting their proposals. He warned that calculations of the impact of Shefc's proposals did not take account of an impending funding boost.
But nurses fear potential problems could be compounded if Shefc no longer funds departments rated 3a or 3b in the research assessment exercise. It has said its priority will be maintaining funding levels for 4, 5 and 5* departments.
The two highest Scottish nursing ratings in the last RAE were 3b for Edinburgh and Glasgow Caledonian universities. While they are confident of increasing their rating, this may be to 3a rather than to 4.
Barbara Parfitt, head of the department of nursing and community health at GCU, said: "Nursing is just beginning to get itself together in terms of a good research profile: 3a is research of national importance. If this is not the time for nurses to contribute to the country's health plan, I don't know when is."
The Scottish nurses are alarmed by the prospect of 3-rated departments not being funded north of the border, but still being funded in England, which they say would force researchers to migrate. But a Shefc spokesperson said decisions about 3-rated departments would be made only after the RAE results.
Shefc has also proposed grant schemes to promote research of strategic importance, including areas that are particularly weak.
David Bleiman of the Association of University Teachers said the AUT opposed any move to restrict research funding to the highest-rated departments. "The system is already highly selective, with 87 per cent of Shefc research funds going to just six universities," he said.
"The Shefc exercises could put so much change into the system so quickly that we are all too busy firefighting restructuring and redundancy to lift our heads and consider a higher education strategy for Scotland," he added.