A new university elite encompassing old and new institutions has emerged from the first public survey of earnings generated from academics' consultancy work.
Imperial College London and Cranfield and Staffordshire universities lead the big earners with incomes of millions of pounds for one of higher education's fastest growing revenue streams.
The figures give the first indication of how much money is being generated by lecturers applying their expertise to help companies and other organisations. Consultancy has become increasingly common as universities diversify income streams and foster entrepreneurialism.
Adrian Day, a policy officer in the business and community team at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "There are a number of institutions emerging that are trying to develop their third-stream missions, including work for business, society and communities.
"This (survey) shows that there is a group of universities that is tapping into the fact that small and medium-sized businesses do not always want world-class research centres to act as their consultants. They might want specialists who live locally."
More than 70 institutions responded to a Times Higher survey that asked universities how much consultancy had contributed to gross income between September 2004 and September 2005.
Imperial led the pack with more than £10 million in earnings. Among those listing seven-figure sums were Cranfield, Staffordshire, Liverpool, Strathclyde, Sheffield, De Montfort and Coventry universities.
These figures, however, are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg. Some universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham, do not register centrally all the consultancy work their staff perform. Other institutions said that they were able to monitor only earnings gained from consultancy carried out on behalf of the university and not private work undertaken by academics in their own time.
Imperial College has gone further than many universities by forming IC Consultants, a wholly owned subsidiary company, to manage academic consultancy contracts. This helps protect both academics and the institution, whose reputation could suffer should there be any problems.
Victoria Kilcoyne, senior executive at the company, said: "Some universities encourage people to do consultancy privately, but some discourage it. We allow academics to take quite a lot of the money personally to supplement academic salaries, so most academics do come through us."
Officials at Staffordshire University said they encouraged academics to do consultancy work to boost the institution's funds. Chris Birch, Staffordshire's executive director for research and enterprise, said: "We have been on a mission for three years to generate more external income and diversify (income) sources. We have to become more in control of our own destiny to survive, and that means raising our own money."
Consultancy is a growth area for higher education. A Hefce survey revealed that UK universities made £168 million from consultancy in 2002-03, 31 per cent more than they did the year before. Mr Day said: "I predict that it will be at least five or ten years before the income that universities make from consultancy levels off."