ELEANOR HALL: The latest global rankings for universities show
Australia's are improving their performance.
Almost every state in the country is now represented in the world's top 200 universities.
But London's World University Rankings issues a direct challenge to the Federal Government over its planned reforms to Australia's tertiary sector, as Anne Barker reports.
ANNE BARKER: The good news is Australian universities are up there with the best in the world - Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge.
Eight universities are now in the world's top 200 and 12 more in the top 400, although the latest gains partly offset even bigger losses recorded in last year's rankings.
Most of the elite unis in Australia fell from even higher rankings last year.
And the University of Adelaide has rejoined the top 200 this year, but it fell from 176th spot last year.
ranks Melbourne University top in Australia, according to the Times Higher
Education Magazine, and 33rd in the world ahead of the ANU, which is 45th in the
world, Sydney Uni 60, and Queensland University 65.
Professor Ian Young is chair of the Group of Eight, which represents the top research universities.
IAN YOUNG: The important thing to look at for all institutions is the sort of, the company you keep.
And when you look at the Group of Eight universities, they're up there with really class institutions around the world.
ANNE BARKER: The Times report, which is seen by many as the most authoritative ranking in the world, includes glowing praise, saying Australia doesn't just have a few individual world class universities, but a world class system.
But the bad news is a warning that this very strength may be unsustainable if the Government's proposed reforms pass into legislation.
And it warns deregulation of tuition fees and privatisation may only cause a greater polarisation between the super elite universities and the so-called 'also rans'.
Phil Baty is editor of the Times Higher Education magazine.
PHIL BATY: It's a very important and delicate balancing act to support the top elite universities and allow them more freedom to compete with the likes of Harvard and Stanford in the US.
But the risk is that you create winners and losers, and the losers in Australia may suddenly find themselves falling out of these rankings because they can't sustain high fee levels and they're not getting the public taxpayer dollar to support them in addition to the fees.
ANNE BARKER: The National Tertiary Education Union believes the fears are well founded.
The union's president is Jeannie Rae.
JEANNIE RAE: Some of our universities will be in a position to compete amongst one another on higher fees, whilst of course the rest of the universities struggle to find a fee rate that students and their families can afford to pay.
So we will be looking some places doing very well, but others doing more and more poorly, and they're being the ones that educate the majority of Australians.
ANNE BARKER: But Professor Ian Young argues the opposite.
IAN YOUNG: Yes, we want a good broad quality of education for our universities but we don't all want them being exactly the same, and again, that's one of the positive things about the deregulation agenda.
It's going to allow institutions to play to their strengths, you know, for Australia to be able to develop a limited number of really world class research universities, but also to develop institutions that focus on their regional needs, and can provide really flexible education for the sorts of students that are seeking that.
And that's, I think, one of the issues around deregulation which is often forgotten, and that is being able to develop a diverse education sector where students have real choice.
ANNE BARKER: And Professor Young dismisses warnings that Australian universities will decline if deregulation of fees and other reforms are passed.
IAN YOUNG: There's very strong correlation between funding and how you perform as an international institution.
Indeed, if deregulation doesn't go through the Senate that will mean that there will be less funds for Australia's universities to be able to function at those levels.
ELEANOR HALL: That's Professor Ian Young, chair of the Group Of Eight and vice-chancellor of the ANU. Anne Barker, our reporter.