Union attacks on singling out "star" teachers and departments for financial reward rather than raising salaries across the board have drawn a muted response from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Lecturers' union Natfhe strongly criticised national teaching fellowships and the proposed 70 centres of teaching excellence in its evidence to the education and skills select committee inquiry into the white paper on higher education, which reported last week. National official Liz Allen said there was little evidence that funding star teachers or departments would stimulate good teaching practice.
However, Hefce is launching a series of consultation documents this month that implicitly accept the "starstruck" rationale.
But Liz Beaty, Hefce director of learning and teaching, has spent the past few months subtly shifting the boundaries of proposals in January's white paper. For example, the centres of excellence in teaching have been renamed centres for excellence in teaching and learning.
She said: "It is important this money is used effectively. If we gave it to the smallest physics department it couldn't do a lot. Therefore we are making the centres more flexible so that we can strike a balance between reward and investment."
Bids to host the centres, which carry £50,000 a year for five years, plus the possibility of £2.5 million in capital funding, can be made by individual institutions or consortia. The funding begins in March 2005.
Centres could be based on a variety of criteria, including forms of teaching, such as lecturing, distance and online learning, research-led teaching or mentoring. They could also be based on supporting students via small group discussions, peer tutoring or studio work. Centres could also address problem areas such as internationalising the curriculum, plagiarism, mental illness or student feedback. They could even organise around a goal, such as critical thinking, widening participation or social inclusion.
Institutions will have to put forwards business plans that include evidence that their reward strategy is integrated with their human resource strategy.
National teaching fellowships will be divided into three categories: general subject teachers, learning support staff and rising stars.
Ms Allen conceded that the funding council was making the best of a bad job but said: "The teaching excellence projects are fundamentally misconceived.
If you are trying to construct a fair and transparent reward structure for teaching, suddenly importing bits and pieces will not help."
• A £700,000 study is to examine why some students flourish and others fail in similar courses across universities, in an attempt to identify optimum teaching and learning conditions.
Undergraduates' experience of university life and how it affects their learning is the subject of a four-year study that won £700,000 in the third round of the UK's largest coordinated education research programme.
A team, led by John Brennan, director of higher education think-tank Cheri, will compare students' and graduates' views in biology, sociology and business in five higher education settings. Researchers will then turn to eight other subjects.
Project manager Tarla Shah said: "Students are studying in diverse environments. There is a greater student mix and more participation. We want to know if this affects learning outcomes and the way subjects are taught."
The Cheri project is one of four inter-university projects to win funding.
Some 18 projects are to receive £9 million from the Economic and Social Research Council's teaching and learning research programme.