Higher education systems all over the developed world are under pressure from politicians. This week alone, we report John Howard, Australia's Prime Minister, urging more young people to become apprentices rather than take a degree and Margaret Spellings, the US Education Secretary, criticising American universities for a lack of accountability.
As universities continue to expand and take more from the public purse, they inevitably move up the political agenda. The UK has been far from immune to this trend, with top-up fees legislation almost bringing down the Government. And, although relations are relatively tranquil now, who knows what next year's spending review may hold?
In such circumstances, higher education needs all the good news it can get to win public support and retain the confidence of those who hold the purse strings. The achievements of our award winners ought to reassure the most demanding observers that UK universities are productive, diverse and imaginative. From Nottingham's pioneering ventures in China and Malaysia to Dundee's discovery of the principal gene behind eczema and Derby's development of workplace learning using IT, the list is impressive. So, too, were many of the submissions that just missed out on awards. Leeds Metropolitan's courageous - and successful - fees policy and development strategy would have been a worthy winner another year. Likewise, initiatives such as Gloucestershire's attainment in sustainable development, making it the first university to achieve the International Standards Association's environmental management standard.
The individual awards demonstrate that there is no shortage of young stars. Both the young author and young researcher awards could have gone to any of the shortlisted nominees, but there is no arguing with the promise shown by Danielle Turner, the Cambridge University psycho-pharmacologist, or Dan Todman, the author of The Great War: Myth and Memory . With even more entries than in their inaugural year, the awards are becoming established as an important showcase for the achievements of UK higher education - and this year, for the first time, also for Commonwealth universities. The competition was sufficiently intense for the outcome to be a source of pride for the sector as a whole.