Two top New Zealand universities have resorted to the courts to stop publication of a report on research performance that makes comparisons with the UK.
Auckland and Victoria universities claim the international comparison, contained as an appendix to a Tertiary Education Commission report on the first round of performance-based research fund (PBRF) assessments, is based on flawed methodology and will damage New Zealand's reputation.
John Hood, Auckland's vice-chancellor, said the court action was driven by a desire to protect "export education", a major bulwark of the New Zealand economy. He pointed to figures that show education to be the nation's fourth biggest export earner, contributing NZ$2.2 billion (£787 million) from a record 118,000 students in 2003.
"The sole purpose of our action is to prevent an invalid comparison being released that would do irreparable harm to New Zealand's image as an education destination for growing numbers of international students," he said.
A spokesman added that although international comparisons between universities were often attempted, this was, to his knowledge, the first time a government agency had tried to do so in an official report.
Lawyers for the universities told the court that a comparison in the report would adversely affect the universities' ability to attract students, staff and private research funding from offshore.
Had universities known the report would compare New Zealand institutional aggregate results with the results from the UK's research assessment exercise, they would have either refused to participate in the PBRF or suggested a different methodology. Universities should at least have been consulted about the commission's plans, they said.
But Paul Callaghan, chief moderator of the quality evaluation process for the PBRF, said the issue of comparisons had been a subtext from the beginning. He said that others would inevitably try to make international comparisons if the commission did not, and it was wiser to attempt to explain the issues involved and "make a best fist of it".
The PBRF was set up to allocate government research money based on the quality of individual researchers' work, the external research funding institutions attract and the number of postgraduate completions.
Unlike the RAE, which measures the performance of academic departments and does not require the participation of all staff, the PBRF required institutions to submit individual evidence portfolios for all academic staff.
Moderators also considered peer esteem and contribution to the research environment in deciding rankings, which the RAE does not.
Overall, it is widely believed that Auckland will take the top position, with Victoria and Canterbury next, and Otago in fourth place.