Proposals to radically alter the way English universities are funded could mean that young researchers lose out, academic groups warned last week.

In 2009, a system of 'metrics' will be rolled out to replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) peer-review system in England — the first country to apply metrics to funding on this scale. The new Research Excellence Framework will allocate its £1 billion (US$2 billion) a year funding to departments mainly on the basis of citations, rather than RAE grade. It is an attempt by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to make the process fairer and the applications process easier.

But academic groups are worried that the new system might discriminate against researchers who have not yet had time to build up many citations. "Obviously you don't want a system that penalizes people at the start of their careers or people who take career breaks," says Steve Smith, chair of the 1994 Group, an advocacy group that represents a number of high-profile UK universities. "It does worry me."

A consultation on the new metrics, which closed this month, reveals that academic groups are not entirely against it, but they do have some concerns. Policy experts are uneasy about a wholesale move away from peer review and concerned that the metrics system will not correctly assess the merits of some disciplines, be very costly for institutions initially and may discourage interdisciplinary research. Last year, the HEFCE was warned by its own audit committee that "a number of technical areas require further work if the new system is to have credibility".

"The RAE undoubtedly had flaws, and it was revised continually to address them," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the UK Higher Education Policy Institute. "But it was probably better than anything that is likely to appear."

However the HEFCE, which is now analysing the responses to the consultation, defends the new system and thinks that the university sector is now broadly behind the proposals.