Academics eager to achieve the coveted title of professor can now pinpoint the universities awarding most chairs. Official figures compiled for The Times Higher reveal that the proportion of professors in each institution varies dramatically. Some give professorships to one in five of their academic staff - fuelling fears that the honour is being devalued.
The total number of professors has burgeoned over the past few years, with 1,715 more professors in the system in 2002-03 than in 1999-2000. Just under 9.7 per cent of all academic staff in the UK are now professors.
The first comprehensive league table of professorships shows that less-research intensive Sixties universities often award the title to a higher proportion of their staff than Russell Group universities.
Richard Wilson, emeritus professor of business administration and financial management at Loughborough University, said: "How many of these new professors have never had a refereed article published or supervised a successful PhD candidate? It seems many of them are not actually professing; they are rewarded for being instruments of the university's administration."
Essex University, where 21.7 per cent of staff hold chairs, and the London School of Economics, where 19.1 per cent hold chairs, top the table.
Some new universities such as Gloucestershire, which was only awarded university status last year, have a greater proportion of staff who hold chairs than Oxford or Cambridge universities. Gloucestershire has 10 per cent of staff in professor positions compared with 5.4 per cent at Oxford and 9.9 per cent at Cambridge.
Nancy Rothwell, Medical Research Council chair and vice-president for research at Manchester, said: "I am worried about the potential decline in what being a professor means. It should be an absolute judgement about internationally recognised research."
But she warned: "We shouldn't have a quota. In some departments there may be many who deserve the title and in others there may be none. I don't believe in filling dead men's shoes."
Andrew Colman, a psychology professor at Leicester University who earned his title after he challenged his university's promotion procedures, said:
"What the figures suggest is what many of us already suspected, namely that there are different customs and practices at different universities, and that some are far more stringent than others."
A spokesperson for Essex said: " The Times Higher has ranked Essex tenth in the UK for research and seventh for teaching, and we can be confident both in the effectiveness of our procedures and the quality of our professorships."
Howard Davies, director of the LSE, said: "We believe our promotion criteria are sound. More is definitely not lesser quality in our case." He said that 24 of the 32 successful candidates for recent posts at the LSE already held chairs elsewhere.
Nigel Curry, pro vice-chancellor at Gloucestershire, said: "We invested in a number of personal professorships in the drive to gain university status."
He said all candidates were externally refereed and subjected to rigorous selection criteria.