The question of whether internationally excellent work can only be done in large departments will stay on the long-term agenda for the research assessment exercise.
Assessment panels will be asked the question as part of the RAE planned for 2001, the funding councils confirmed last week in their guidance to RAE submissions. Answers will be fed into the long-term review of the RAE.
In its strategic plan published this week, the Higher Education Funding Council for England revealed that it wants an increase in the number of staff in top-rated departments. However, departments will not be required to submit a minimum proportion of staff to gain the top grade.
The Department for Education and Employment had asked the HEFC to look at whether top grades should be limited to academic departments submitting a minimum proportion of staff. But the Scottish and Welsh funding councils and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland were not asked to consider the issue.
Earlier consultation revealed that three-quarters of respondents were against the idea.
The decision represents a compromise between the funding councils and the DFEE.
Each subject assessment panel will be asked to judge whether there is a relationship between the size of the department and its production of internationally excellent research.
In some cases, the answer is likely to be negative. However, in subjects such as physics, it has long been thought that big departments are needed to produce top research.
Last month the University of Cardiff boosted its staff numbers after noting that the top RAE grades were limited to big departments.