Top researchers are being given special treatment by their universities to maximise their chances of securing a new "stellar international" research rating in the run-up to the toughest ever research assessment exercise.
University managers are scrutinising the output of their elite academic performers as they finalise preparations for the 2008 exercise. Star researchers are being offered extra research leave, funds to attend major international conferences and relief from teaching duties. The new top 4* rating will differentiate between the best and very best researchers as never before.
"What we will see in future is a further subdivision within the research rich, the research very rich and the research very, very rich," said Philip Jones, deputy vice-chancellor of Durham University, which has recently undertaken a "review of research readiness".
He added: "While the current system differentiates between the Premiership, the Championship and Division One, this will differentiate within the Premiership between the Champion's League regulars, the Uefa Cup teams and the rest with a few scrabbling around the relegation zone. The Premiership remains a critical league to play in, but now it's all about manoeuvring for position within a much more differentiated league."
As the stakes rise, academics claim that more institutions are threatening underperforming researchers with teaching-only contracts.
One source at University College London said the situation was worst in faculties that slipped in the last RAE or that rely heavily on research funding. "Heads of department are so obsessed with the RAE that no one is even allowed to criticise it. The stick they are using is 'if you're not returned then it's a teaching duty for you'."
"Researchers are expected not just to publish papers but to publish them in competitive journals such as Nature . They are setting strange internal rules and benchmarks," the UCL source said.
A senior lecturer at King's College London said that although some academics were not officially being placed in teaching-only posts, they were being denied access to research facilities. "People are left in limbo. It's happening by stealth rather than directly."
King's will hold a mock RAE this month where academic positions will be consolidated. The battle for ratings has intensified as, potentially, this could be the last RAE, setting budgets for at least six years. Highest ratings will also be far harder to secure in the 2008 RAE.
In departments with the old top 5* ratings, only 10 per cent to 20 per cent of academics may qualify for the new 4* rating. It is widely expected that the lion's share of grants will go to those departments with the highest proportion of superstar researchers.
UCL said it had carried out a data collection and assessment exercise across departments to help "inform staff about the RAE process and RAE panel evaluation criteria and (identify) areas that can be improved academically and administratively".
Bristol and Cardiff universities are planning mock RAEs. At Newcastle, managers are visiting every research unit or school to assess their international standing. Birmingham is likely to do a mock RAE to test data collection and dissemination systems, rather than to assess staff performance.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The RAE is causing damage across the sector as institutions scramble to second-guess the 2008 round."