Universities are moving to transfer weak researchers into teaching-only posts or make them redundant to improve their scores in the next research assessment exercise, it emerged this week.
A growing number of universities are conducting "dummy runs" to calculate how they will fare in the planned 2008 RAE.
The Association of University Teachers this week said that three London universities - Imperial College, King's College and Queen Mary - had already begun moves to transfer or remove selected academics.
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said: "It's ridiculous for institutions to make decisions now about who will or won't be submitted when the criteria for eligibility for submission have not yet been set by the RAE panels."
The first signs of manoeuvring among institutions in the run-up to the RAE look likely to exacerbate a growing backlash against the exercise. Members of the House of Commons science and technology committee this week called for the 2008 RAE to be abandoned.
The 2008 exercise is expected to come under review by the Treasury as part of its ten-year investment framework for science.
But Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, told the science and technology committee that vice-chancellors would oppose plans to postpone or scrap it.
He said: "What the universities are looking for is clarity before 2008 about the way in which it will work, and some indication of the likely financial return."
Lord May, president of the Royal Society, said that in "an ideal world" the next round would be cancelled.
The AUT said the management at Imperial was arranging one-to-one meetings with academics who were thought to be underperforming in research terms.
The union said that those who did not shape up would be offered redundancy.
The British Medical Association said academics in the medical school at Imperial had received letters threatening "disciplinary procedures" if they did not generate external research grants of at least £75,000 a year and have at least three papers accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals.
A spokesperson for Imperial said: "The college believes that the contribution made by individuals to education and research is crucial and we regularly monitor both teaching and research competencies as a core part of performance assessment."
The AUT said King's was also evaluating staff, though in a more "secretive" manner. A spokesperson for the university said: "The college has a responsibility to all staff, including researchers in areas of strength, and we have a duty to make sure that they are properly supported."
A spokesperson for Queen Mary said: "Our intention is to ensure that we return all research-active staff in the next RAE. However, we recognise that this might not be possible in all cases and we want to make suitable provision for those colleagues. This may include introducing teaching-only contracts in a small minority of cases."
There are signs that other universities may follow suit. One faculty head at a major research university said: "We have a list of people we might approach to take early retirement or a transfer. Everyone is doing it. The difference is we aren't all doing it very publicly."
Professor Crewe warned the science and technology committee that game-playing was likely to be worse rather than better in the next RAE. He said: "What will happen, and I know from my colleagues it is happening, is all institutions will be even more selective in the staff they submit."
Concerns are also growing among academics that key interdisciplinary research areas will fall between the gaps of the proposed new RAE subject panels.
Geoffrey Crossick, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Board, said: "Academics believe that the RAE does not value interdisciplinary work and that they have to play safe by publishing in core disciplinary areas."
Allister McGregor, a senior researcher in the department of economics and international development at Bath University, said: "It means a lot of universities will decide that although people are doing good research they can't be submitted to the RAE because they will be treated unfairly."
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