A third of English higher education institutions will be excluded from the research assessment exercise under plans unveiled this week.
The university casualties are Leeds Metropolitan, London Metropolitan, Thames Valley, Central England, Derby, Lincoln, Staffordshire, Teesside and Wolverhampton. Some 28 colleges would no longer receive Hefce research grants.
The proposals from the Higher Education Funding Council for England would affect institutions where research accounts for less than 2 per cent of the total teaching and research grants. Institutions with a large student body and pockets of research excellence would be hit particularly hard.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "We are concerned that Hefce's proposals will produce a limited and differentiated sector that does not reflect the complexity of how universities have to operate in the public interest regionally, nationally and internationally.
"Diversity of mission cannot be imposed on the sector. We must avoid a tiered system in which universities are not able to develop their missions.
There are dangers arising from enforced specialisation that may affect student choice and the international reputation of UK higher education."
Patricia Ambrose, executive secretary of the Standing Conference of Principals, said: "We would strongly oppose the use of any crude proxy measure, such as the proportion of an institution's funding council grant for teaching and research that is received for research. This fails to take account of a complex range of factors, including funding for research from other sources and the fact that research in the arts and humanities is generally less well-funded than in other disciplines."
Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, which gets 2.3 per cent of its combined grant for research, said: "The RAE is about more than grants, it's about reputation and staff morale. There are lots of reasons why people would want to participate. Most of the costs of research assessment are in the institution, so it should be up to the institution to decide whether to take part."
Roger Brown, vice-chair of the Standing Conference of Principals and principal of the Southampton Institute, which would be excluded from the exercise, said: "It is, in effect, a limit on institutional autonomy. What is the rationale for the cut-off point? It has to be called discriminatory."
The proposals are contained in the long-awaited review of research assessment conducted by Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford.
Sir Gareth said: "Less research-intensive universities would be assessed separately via developmental discussions with expert panels. At the moment, we are grading research from outstanding to mediocre. We need to get back to using the RAE to measure the very best research in the country."
Sir Howard Newby, Hefce chief executive, said: "The objective is not to remove research funding but rather to reduce radically the burden of entering the full-blown version of research assessment for these institutions."
Sir Gareth's review states: "There will be those who argue that research assessment is not about funding. The assessment of research is a valuable service that institutions use to benchmark their progress. However, we believe it is increasingly difficult to provide this service where there is no realistic prospect of funding."
More details of the government's vision for the future organisation and funding of research will be revealed by higher education minister Margaret Hodge at a London conference, partly sponsored by The THES, on June 9.
• Hefce is planning to retain existing criteria for identifying the very best research. It designated departments awarded the top 5* grade in the 1996 and 2001 research assessment exercise as 6* or 5** after the publication of January's white paper. It plans to keep the existing definition until 2007, when the new RAE will begin. But it still intends to consult on the proposals.