Australian universities will be subject to regular independent audits of their teaching, learning, research and management under a plan agreed at an historic meeting of all state, territory and federal education ministers.
In a break with the traditional role of self-accrediting universities, the ministers agreed to establish an Australian Universities Quality Agency by August. The agency will oversee accreditation procedures that the states and territories apply to new higher education institutions or courses.
"Protocols" for higher education approval processes were also agreed at the meeting. These will apply to all universities, including foreign universities wishing to operate in Australia as well as Australian universities with overseas campuses or those spread over several states.
The first audits will begin next March and run over a five-year cycle, or more often if a university is believed to be facing serious problems. Expert panels will be set up to conduct the audits with the costs borne by each university involved. The operating costs of the agency will be met by state governments.
The creation of the agency is Australia's response to growing competition from foreign institutions, which are now conducting large-scale promotion campaigns to attract students.
Federal education minister, David Kemp, said: "Establishment of the Australian Universities Quality Agency and the national protocols clearly demonstrates the commitment of Australian governments to the further development of higher education. It will certainly enhance our international reputation as a provider of high quality education."
A report prepared for the meeting by the federal education department said the absence of a credible and transparent quality assurance system was a significant weakness that had to be tackled. Surveys of foreign students and international rankings showed that even Australia's top universities were rated as having good but not outstanding reputations.
"Our economic development and international reputation will be seriously compromised if we continue to rely on the traditions of institutions responsible for their own quality assurance without a visible form of independent external verification and strategies for progressive improvement," the report says.
The agency will be headed by a chief executive officer and a board of 11 members, with six nominated by the ministers and five by the sector. But the Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee said it was concerned that its proposal for equal board representation had not been adopted.
Vice-chancellors had favoured a body similar to New Zealand's academic audit unit, which was set up by the country's vice-chancellors. A committee spokesman said vice-chancellors supported the ministers' overall approach, but were disappointed that the model of equal numbers of government and sector representatives had not been adopted. "If this is an example of consensus, then we are off to a bad start."