Older academics could be systematically culled from departments because the new rules for the 2008 research assessment exercise favour younger researchers, it was claimed this week.
An analysis of the procedures for the 2008 RAE by David Toke of Birmingham University, which is backed by the charity Age Concern, claims that the new rules are underpinned by a "strategic commitment to coded ageist discrimination".
Dr Toke warns in his report that the rules will ensure that departments with a lower age profile will be "treated more leniently" than departments with more mature staff. He says this will be "likely to encourage departments to breach the age discrimination legislation and dispense with the services of older staff in favour of new, younger staff".
According to guidance for RAE panels released last month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the 2008 exercise is "underpinned" by the principle of "assessing the sustainability and vitality" of research.
The guidance says that panels should "take account of the situation of early career researchers" and should encourage institutions to "use the narrative parts of submissions to describe the contribution of early career researchers".
Dr Toke told The Times Higher : "There are clear signals to departments that they may achieve a higher grade for a given research output, and hence a lot more money, if they have an early career - read young - staff profile."
He said that while Hefce's equality briefing for panels included a commitment to protect the interests of older researchers, this was undermined by the commitment to assessing the sustainability of research.
"I shall be 56 when the RAE assessment is conducted. Hence, my contribution will not be regarded as being as sustainable as someone aged 30, for example," Dr Toke said.
A Hefce spokesman that the RAE would not discriminate against older researchers. He said the emphasis on early career researchers, who had been discouraged from submitting work in the past because they tended to have a lower volume of research, reflected improved equal opportunities practices. Rather than having their work valued more highly, early career researchers might be able to submit a lower volume of work, to be assessed against the same quality standards.
He said that Hefce had worked with the Equality Challenge Unit to produce clear guidance on equality that took all legislation into account.