Freedom exactsa price

January 10, 1997

A world without official rankings leaves Australian universities more autonomous but less sure of their cash flow as they compete for students and funding, reports Geoff Maslen from Melbourne.

UNIVERSITIES in Australia will be spared an onerous bureaucratic exercise for 1997 - they will not be subject to an official quality review.

The election of a conservative government last March saw the end of the formal system of ranking universities and of any attempt to ensure that institutions had programmes to improve the quality of their work.

The former Labor government introduced annual quality audits in 1993 to get some indication of how universities compared in areas such as research and teaching and to prompt them to implement quality assurance schemes.

Under the system, quality outcomes were a result of self-assessment. Institutions were judged on how well they seemed to have performed against standards they set down for themselves. Even so, just making the attempt generated considerable change and in a way that was not possible by simply giving needy universities more money.

The key was an initial government allocation to the project of Aus$80 million (Pounds 40 million), although by the third year it had been cut to Aus$50 million.

With every university running its finances on a knife-edge, having a few million dollars extra, or even just a few thousand, helped generate an operational flexibility that in many cases resulted in marked improvements in courses and teaching.

Apart from a cash injection worth more than Aus$6 million to the big universities, status also proved to be a potent factor in the quality process. After the first round, when universities were grouped in six bands, controversy erupted over which institutions missed out on being placed in the top group.

Suddenly, where a university was on the ladder counted for a great deal. It was not just parochial prestige. International reputations were at stake, not to mention the prospect of overseas students taking their fees elsewhere.

Vice chancellors were initially alarmed at the plan to set up the quality audit, claiming it would infringe on university autonomy and that the Aus$80 million was no more than "bribery". But, by the time of last year's election, the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee was calling on the main political parties to maintain the quality programme - and the money that went with it.

But the new government of Prime Minister John Howard abandoned the scheme, partly for ideological reasons but principally because it meant a saving of more than Aus$50 million a year.

Even before the quality audits, Australia had an unofficial assessment system. Each year since 1989, Dean Ashenden and Sandra Milligan, two educationists based in Perth, have published a Good Universities Guide which outlines all the courses offered by public and private tertiary institutions.

At the release of each annual report, the two nominate a "university of the year" - largely, it seems, for publicity purposes.

But the report also draws on a mass of data compiled by government and private organisations to provide 17 comparative tables that show the relative standing of each institution in areas ranging from prestige and research track record to ease of access and employment outcomes for graduates.

Other aspects such as the proportion of foreign students, those from non-English speaking backgrounds and those aged over 25 are included, as are student-staff ratios, graduate starting salaries and descriptions of each campus.

In the latest report, the oldest universities - Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, Adelaide and Western Australia among them - were all ranked as the most prestigious and with the best research performance. But that does not guarantee them top billing in the other tables.

Some of the smallest universities, for example, were rated best by their graduates on issues such as the quality of teaching and flexibility of entry while the most prestigious found themselves given only average marks. Ms Milligan says: "We believe there is no one 'best' university for any particular student, which is why we assiduously avoid drawing up a league table."

Thousands of the books are sold annually and the two compilers have extended the project to include special annual reports on management education, postgraduate courses and careers. They also produce a special edition of the guide for foreign students who, with their Aus$300 million in annual fee payments, may yet prove to be as effective as Labor's scheme in ensuring that universities continue to focus on quality assurance.

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