Australian universities have been subject to a quality audit for the third year running but not one achieved top score in the four categories the quality committee devised this year.
For the first time universities were not placed in a single list according to how well they had performed and how much reward money they were to get as a consequence. This was presumably to overcome the tendency to turn the list into a league table of results.
This year universities were assessed on their research management improvement and/or plus outcomes and community service. The review, conducted by audit teams who spent only a day at most in each institution, was based on an assessment of each university's performance against its own goals.
They were then put in the different categories in groups from one to four, although none was able to claim top ranking in all. But that did not stop some universities putting out press releases claiming to be the nation's top tertiary institution. One even weighted the different categories to produce what appeared to be a league table anyway.
At the launch of the quality committee's report, education minister Simon Crean said universities had been shown to have remarkable energy and enthusiasm in blending the very different cultures which had been brought together in the unified national system. A strong developing research culture was now evident in all institutions, he said.
"All universities had research management plans to guide their activities, with clear objectives and targets for research development," Mr Crean said. "Many are benchmarking their research and postgraduate practices to emulate international best practice."
Brian Wilson, chair of the quality committee, said he believed the three years of the quality assurance programme had produced a significant change in the higher education system - possibly as much as reforms introduced by former education minister John Dawkins in 1988. "There have been very significant changes, especially in the procedures for managing research and community service," Professor Wilson said.
As a result of the quality allocation, the University of Sydney will receive the top sum of Aus$3. million (Pounds 1.64 million), with Melbourne on Aus$3.08 million and Monash on Aus$3.01 million. Unlike most government grants, institutions have total freedom over how this money can be spent.
Despite an initial government assurance that it would provide almost Aus$80 million a year for five years on the quality assurance programme, this year's amount was cut to Aus$50 million and it is not certain whether there will be any further reviews.
Mr Crean said he was considering advice from the Higher Education Council on the various options for the future use of discretionary funds that have been used up until now to finance the quality programme.