University heads have criticised the assessment scale proposed for the next research selectivity exercise fearing that it will siphon off money from top-rated departments.
Delegates at a meeting of the new Parliamentary University Group said the Higher Education Funding Council for England's plans for a linear seven-point ladder of ratings would reward mediocre and "super-excellent" departments at the expense of excellent research.
They argued that the model ought to be structured to give very little money to the low-ranking departments. It should recognise that the leap between the top ratings represented a greater investment than the jump between lower ratings.
The funding council announced in June that the next exercise in 1996 would extend the previous five-point scale to seven by splitting the 3 rating and introducing a starred 5 rating to help outstanding departments improve.
But some institutions, in particular those identified as members of the so-called "94 group" -- mostly relatively small universities with a lot of 4 and 5 rated departments -- are worried that the new model will drain research funds away from them.
Richard Jones, pro-vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, said he would prefer to see a model based on a sigmoid or S-shaped curve, to protect 4 and 5 rated departments.
"It seems that we are in danger, with the linear model, of siphoning out a significant amount of money into second-rate research simply because there is a large volume of it, and at the opposite end ploughing money into an ever-diminishing number of super-excellent areas," he said.
John Ashworth, director of the London School of Economics, called for an exponential model in recognition of the extra resources institutions put into departments which had moved from a 4 to a 5 ranking.
"The linear model assumes that the resources required to go from a 2 to a 3 are the same as to go from a 4 to a 5. To tackle that problem by expanding the selectivity rather than introducing an exponential relationship seems foolish," he said.
But Barhram Bekhradnia, the funding council's director of policy, said the proposed model was simply designed to allow top-rated departments to improve their position and achieve the fairest funding spread between institutions.