A £55 million research council funding scheme has been criticised for favouring the 20 large research-intensive Russell Group universities.
The 1994 Group of smaller research-led universities has written to the Government to raise concerns, Times Higher Education has learnt.
At issue are the new "knowledge transfer accounts" (KTAs) launched by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It is intended that KTAs will be provided for up to 25 universities to help ensure that their academics' discoveries are turned into tangible economic and societal benefits for the UK.
But some members of the 1994 Group say the money seems intended primarily for universities that already have a large proportion of EPSRC-funded research.
The call for research proposals under the KTA scheme, which closed earlier this month, invited any organisation eligible to receive EPSRC grants to apply for a KTA. It says that "to be successful" applicants will need to be able to point to a "significant base of high-quality, EPSRC-funded research" on which to draw.
"The tone of the bid put the emphasis on volume ... something that would clearly disadvantage universities like ours," said Trevor McMillan, the pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Lancaster. "(It) makes us nervous about whether our bid is really playing on a level playing field."
Paul Marshall, the executive director of the 1994 Group, confirmed that the group had written to Adrian Smith, the Director General for Science and Research at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to express its concerns. He declined to comment further, saying only that the group was awaiting a formal response.
The EPSRC defended the scheme. David Reid, its head of marketing and communications, said the research council was "surprised" at the view being taken by the 1994 Group.
He said that many 1994 Group members had applied for KTAs either in their own right or as part of collaborative applications. Many group members have a good-sized portfolio of EPSRC-funded research, and small but exceptionally fruitful research programmes were also eligible, he said.
"This is not an automatic handicap for smaller institutions, and they should not feel excluded from the call," he said.