The Independent has learnt that an inquiry chaired by a senior civil servant will recommend the highest rises for researchers at the bottom of the academic ladder, to reflect their status as the potential world- class academics of tomorrow.
A report on university pay, due to be published later this month, will argue that professors should get a 30 per cent rise, coming into effect by 2002. But the report is thought not to recommend such substantial pay rises for rank-and-file university lecturers and senior lecturers, who are currently voting on industrial action in support of a 10 per cent pay rise.
The 18-month independent inquiry, chaired by Sir Michael Bett, will call for a big reduction in the use of short-term contracts for researchers, arguing that "significantly more staff should be offered permanent - ie open-ended - contracts".
It will also call for action to eliminate stark differences in the pay of men and women at universities, and will recommend a reform of academic pay scales to open up opportunities for promotion.
Research carried out for the inquiry found that 93 per cent of all researchers are on short-term contracts, some lasting as little as a few months.
Academics fear low pay and job insecurity is forcing promising PhD students to leave UK universities for industry or research posts overseas.
Peter Cotgreave, the director of the academic pressure group Save British Science, said: "There is no question in my mind that there is a brain drain. People might have a PhD and a couple of post-doctorate years and then go to the US, but don't come back. They don't appear on the figures because they never had a proper job here."
Starting salaries for full-time lecturers - usually with a doctorate and several years of research - are about pounds 17,000. Research staff can be paid as little as pounds 10,000. Starting salaries for professors are pounds 35,000.
Full professors in American universities earned pounds 45,000 on average, and in 19 universities the average was as high as pounds 62,000. Associate professors earned an average pounds 35,000. At Princeton, full professors earn an average of pounds 69,000. At Harvard the figure is more than pounds 72,000.
David Treisman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers and a member of the Bett Committee, refused to discuss the report's recommendations.
But he warned: "People get jobs, but often leave after a year or a year and a half; they can't hack it with a mortgage or a young family. At that stage they either go into industry or go abroad. British universities can miss out on their really good years."
Tom Wilson, head of higher education at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "Talented young people on short-term contracts in British universities are likely to say `forget this' and go off to America."