The elite research-intensive universities are unlikely to be given any special protection against funding cuts when the formula for distributing more than £1.5 billion a year to support research is devised.
After Times Higher Education went to press, the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England was due to meet to discuss the 2009-10 funding allocations, amid lobbying from leading research institutions to protect their share of research funding.
Last month's research assessment exercise, which will be used to determine research funding, found that "world-leading" research was distributed widely throughout the sector. Without special protections built in to the RAE funding formula, there will be a much wider distribution of cash across the sector. It is predicted that the top eight universities could lose in excess of £100 million.
Despite warnings from the Russell Group of large research universities that any erosion of the current policy to concentrate research funding would damage the UK's world standing, senior figures in the sector believe Hefce will deliver a funding formula that faithfully "flows from the results" of the RAE.
Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, said he believed it was "more likely" that Hefce would approach the funding formula with a "straight bat".
Any formula found to move money back to the Russell Group institutions would "not be very subtle" - "the consequence of the political fuss that would follow would be to undermine the credibility of the RAE," he said.
One "fix" mooted as a way to protect the elite is that Hefce could further increase the "cost weights" on laboratory and clinical subjects, where the elite dominate.
Professor Crossick said the amount that would have to be moved to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects to make a real difference to the elites would have to be "very significant indeed".
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said there was room to ensure that a "strategic view" was taken of how the RAE results were interpreted.
"For us, that means not changing the current level of concentration of funding," she said.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and chair of Million+, which represents new universities, said any attempt by Hefce to load money in to STEM could be "open to legal challenge".
"I don't expect to see a distorted algorithm," he said.
The annual grant letter to Hefce from the Government, detailing the total funding available to the sector, was expected as Times Higher Education went to press.
As well as concerns about how the RAE will be turned into funding allocations, the letter is also expected to address growing concerns about student numbers.
Anna Fazackerley, senior adviser on higher education at the think-tank Policy Exchange, said: "The general understanding in the sector is that the Hefce letter has been delayed due to complicated wrangling over student numbers.
"Hefce told vice-chancellors there would be no additional student numbers available to new bidders for 2009-10 or 2010-11 - but there may be a competing political temptation to try to expand numbers to deal with the problem of increasing unemployment. What vice-chancellors want to know is how prescriptive ministers will be about student numbers next year."