Research might versus community credentials has emerged as a dividing line among organisations pitching to be labelled academic health science centres.
The deadline for partnerships to apply to be accredited by an independent international selection panel is tomorrow (16 January).
The Department of Health has not published clear criteria but has said they will be judged on research, education, patient care and "promise".
Partnerships that include already designated comprehensive biomedical research centres - Cambridge; Oxford; University College London; Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals/King's College; and Imperial College London - have an advantage in showing research strength.
However, the "promise" criterion is defined in guidance as "the vision, ambition, and partnership arrangements for delivering benefits in patient care, with an emphasis on benefits for the local community".
There is "no predetermined number" of centres, according to the DH, but opinion is said to be divided over whether there should be a rough upper limit of either six or 10.
Alan North, dean of the faculty of medical and human sciences and vice president of Manchester University, is director of the already established but not yet accredited Manchester centre. Manchester has a biomedical research centre but was not designated as comprehensive.
He said successful partnerships had to show strengths in all areas.
He added: "There is a bit of a conflict in that these have been advertised as fairly elitist organisations, yet on the other hand the DH clearly wants them to deliver improvements in healthcare to a fairly wide community." Professor North said involving primary care trusts would be vital to spread practice but they may have been excluded from partnerships as they are rarely strong in research.
Martin Underwood, vice dean of Warwick University's health sciences research institute, said a strong focus on research would be likely to result in the centres being in the same area of the country, which may not be desirable.
King's College London vice principal for health Robert Lechler is the interim director of King's Health Partners, which includes Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley foundation trusts. "I think the distinctive offering of King's Health Partners is that we do tick all the boxes."
Applicants will be told if they have been shortlisted by 2 February.