For the second year running, Australian universities are being subject to a federal quality audit. At stake is almost $80 million (Pounds 36.4 million) in additional grants.
Review teams from the Commonwealth government's committee for the assurance of quality in higher education are visiting each institution. This year, the teams are focussing on teaching and methods for improving access to traditionally disadvantaged groups.
Announcing the government's review guidelines, Simon Crean, the education minister, said the teams would also look closely at the quality of postgraduate teaching. Mr Crean said he would take a keen interest in the development of the quality programme.
Last year, the extra money was awarded for quality performance in general and resulted in the universities being ranked in six bands.
This caused an outcry from those listed in the lower bands, with claims that the review teams had failed to take account of the diversity of institutions.
Mr Crean said the government was anxious to make the audit quality process more open. This year, the committee's reports to each university would be published. He said this should provide better information for students.
The government would also publish examples of best practice to assist institutions that needed to improve their service delivery, Mr Crean said.
Vice chancellors initially expressed alarm at the plan to set up the quality audit process, claiming it would infringe university autonomy and that the $80 million was no more than "bribery".
But that did not stop them preparing for a hard fight last year, and with that experience as a guide all have been planning how to impress the auditors. Some are understood to have set up special coaching sessions for staff, students and administrators.
Under the guidelines for rewarding quality, the most an institution can receive in additional funding is 3 per cent of its operating grant. But, for the large universities, this amounted to an extra $6 million last year -- which the institution was then free to spend.
When the quality audit was first announced Don Aitkin, vice chancellor of the University of Canberra, said it was unparalleled elsewhere in the world.
According to the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, the latest guidelines ensure the quality committee is more accountable to the institutions and mean they will have a better idea of how the audit is performed.
Under the guidelines, universities will be assessed on their overall planning and management of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and learning, curriculum design, assessment, student support services, learning outcomes, and the use of innovative teaching and learning methods.
The guidelines statement says the aim of the audit is the production of graduates who can work anywhere in Australia or overseas at standards consistent with best practice in the particular field.
The reviews will cover full-time and part-time courses, postgraduate, undergraduate, domestic, international and continuing education students, and the various types of instruction.
Auditors will also look at the efforts institutions have made to improve their performance following the 1993 review.