Australian vice-chancellors are seeking an independent national body to be responsible for audits of university quality systems.
Their committee has proposed forming a private, non-profit firm with members drawn from all 38 universities and an 11-person executive board of university, government and non-sector members.
Universities would have to follow the quality assurance mechanisms set down in order to receive government subsidies, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee said. Institutions would be audited every five years and their quality assurance processes checked against their claims.
AVCC executive director Stuart Hamilton said the committee's model would enable a university to decide on its own benchmarks and quality assurances while allowing the auditing body to ensure standards are reasonable and appropriately assessed.
Mr Hamilton said the main impetus behind the proposal was to respond to perceptions, particularly abroad, that there was not enough quality assurance in Australian higher education.
Meantime, state and territory governments have backed the National Tertiary Education Union's call to develop a set of principles governing accreditation of new higher education institutions.
The union has sought meetings to discuss the issue. Talks have been held with officials in Victoria, and others are being planned elsewhere across the country.
The NTEU recently adopted a policy on accreditation to help protect the quality of higher education. The policy calls for coordination between state governments - which in most cases have legislative responsibility for universities in their regions - to see that minimum requirements are met by new private providers.
Union president Carolyn Allport said the NTEU had proposed creating a national accreditation framework to address what it means to be called a university.
"The role previously taken by government and institutions in establishing new universities meant there was a consensus about what was required to operate as a university," Dr Allport said. "This has been shattered by the emergence of private competitors and it has become necessary to formalise accreditation to protect Australian education's good name."
The NTEU would encourage the ministerial council of education, employment, training and youth affairs, on which the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments are represented, to develop a strong quality assurance framework, she said.
"Existing limits on the use of the name 'university' are lax, and if governments do not ensure that institutions meet basic quality requirements prior to trading as a university, we are likely to see a host of fly-by-night providers cashing in on the high standing of Australia's education system."