An Australian quality assurance agency is to be established to ensure that public and private universities meet certain standards and to verify their claims about internal quality processes.
Announcing the plan, federal education minister David Kemp indicated that higher education institutions could have their government funding cut and accreditation to award degrees denied if they under-perform.
Dr Kemp said the new agency would require the same standards of private and public universities.
Its audits and reports would
be used to assure students "and the outside world" that Australian universities are "as good as we know them to be".
"The key to the model is credibility, and that can only be guaranteed if it is quite clear the agency is not beholden to any particular interest group and cannot be compromised in its role," Dr Kemp said.
Because all but one of Australia's universities were set up under state acts of parliament and are accredited by state governments, Dr Kemp needs the support of the states and territories to have his proposals accepted.
Both the Australian ViceCchancellors' committee and the National Tertiary Education Union, however, have proposed systems of quality control. This follows the emergence of private providers and questions about what it means to be called a university.
The NTEU has adopted a policy aimed at protecting the quality of Australian higher education. The policy calls for coordination between state governments to ensure minimum requirements are met by private institutions.
Union president Carolyn Allport said the union wanted federal, state and territory education ministers to establish a uniform framework of accreditation.
The issue first arose late last year when the Norfolk Island government approved the establishment of the US-based Greenwich University there to provide distance education courses to Australian students. The university is now the subject of a federal review.
Dr Kemp said Australia's major competitors had external quality assurance mechanisms. "We need to be able to advertise that we have quality assurance mechanisms in place," he said.