Academics will have to fit their research into one of five broad themes, and demonstrate its quality, if they want extra time off from teaching duties, under an initiative at the University of Teesside.
Staff will be granted research time beyond their contractual entitlement of five weeks' annual "scholarly activity" only if they have successfully applied for membership of one of the university's five new "research institutes".
The institutes, which each cover cross-discipline research themes, will allocate time according to four levels of "research quality".
Academics whose work is of a "quality that is recognised nationally" may apply for one day of research leave per week. Those whose research is "recognised internationally" may ask for two days while "internationally excellent" researchers can earn up to 4.5 days.
The institutes cover: Digital Futures; Social Futures; Technology Futures; Design and Culture; and Health Sciences and Social Care.
Until now academics have negotiated their personal research allowances with line managers in individual schools.
Managers hope the new scheme will encourage group working, improving consistency of research quality across the university and reducing reliance on small numbers of high-performing individuals.
The University and College Union branch said it supports the principles behind the scheme "but is watching to see how it unfolds".
"As long as staff are not excluded, and we have an undertaking that, in general, they will not be, then it provides an opportunity to pull research in the university together," a union spokesman said.
But one academic, who asked not to be named, said the move had caused "a lot of disquiet". He said a system of individual negotiation was being eliminated in favour of a competitive system likely to opt for a "safe pair of hands".
"A pilot seemed to favour established researchers in disciplines which were easy to return for the research assessment exercise, effectively discriminating against those in new disciplines or those hoping to start a research career," he said.
He also expressed concerns about the application process for membership of the institutes, fearing that staff whose work does not fit a theme will be forced into "bums-on-seats, lecturing-only posts".
Cliff Hardcastle, deputy vice-chancellor (research and enterprise), said: "As a non-research intensive university we have limited funds available to support our national and international quality researchers and to grow the big themes which underpin our programmes.
"All colleagues, whether currently research active or who wish to become research active, are welcome to join the institutes. They are not at all exclusive."
Research degree supervision time and time for externally funded research will not be allocated through the new scheme.