Australia has made big gains in the latest world university rankings, with one new entrant joining the world's top 200, and most of Australia's top universities moving up the rankings.
The Times Higher Education magazine releases its 11th annual World University Rankings today in London.
Melbourne University remains Australia's top-ranked university in 33rd position globally, ahead of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra at 45th (up from 48th last year), the University of Sydney at 60th (up from 72nd) and the University of Queensland at 65th position (down from 63rd).
The magazine report describes Australia's university sector as a "world-class system".
"The data shows that Australia does not have just a few world-class universities, but a world-class system – in addition to the eight universities which make the world top 200, there are a further 12 universities which make the 200-400 group," the report stated.
But it also raised questions about the Federal Government's proposed tertiary education reforms.
"The big question, as Australia moves into a period of radical reform with the full deregulation of tuition fees, is whether this admirable strength-in-depth can be maintained," it said.
"The reforms may help a small Australian elite protect or even improve their global standing, but what about the rest?
"Are we going to see a greater polarisation in Australia between a global super-elite and a large number of also-rans declining?"
Professor Ian Young, vice-chancellor of ANU and chair of the Group of Eight elite research universities, said without reforms such as higher fees, these universities will no longer compete on the world stage.
"There's very strong correlation between funding and how you perform as an international institution," Professor Young said.
"So indeed if deregulation doesn't go through the Senate, that will mean that there'll be less funds for Australia's universities to be able to function at those levels.
"Unless we as a nation can invest in our universities to invest in quality research to build the education programs that we need for the future, then that does not bode well either for our universities or indeed for the future prosperity of the nation."
But the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said the opposite is the case.
Union president Jeannie Rae says the rankings show the dangers of pressing ahead with deregulation or privatisation of universities.
"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," Ms Rae said.
"So we will be looking at probably some places doing very well but others doing more and more poorly, and they're the ones that educate the majority of Australians."
United States continues to dominate rankings
Worldwide, the United States continued to dominate the Times Higher Education rankings, taking seven of the top 10 places and 15 of the top 20.
California Institute of Technology retained the world number one spot for the fourth consecutive year, ahead of Harvard University in second place.
However, this year 60 per cent of US universities lost ground and overall the US suffered an average fall of 5.34 ranking places.
London has the greatest concentration of first class universities with four in the top 40, more than any other city in the world.
However the United Kingdom has lost three universities from the prestigious top 200 list. The University of Oxford (UK) was third and Cambridge University was fifth.
Leading Asian universities continue to rise in the rankings.
Asia now has 24 universities in the world top 200, up from 20 last year.
Two Asian universities are now in the world top 25 and six make the top 50.
Japan retained its position as Asia's number one nation, but its universities have lost ground against rising Asian nations such as China, Hong Kong and South Korea.
India still has no university in the world's top 200.
The Times Higher Education magazine says its World University Rankings are based partly on a survey of about 10,000 academics in 2014, and use 13 performance indicators to rank the world's top 200 universities, in the fields of research, teaching, knowledge transfer and international activity.
Altogether, 20 Australian universities are now in the world top 400, although the latest gains partly offset even bigger losses recorded in last year's rankings.
The University of Melbourne is in 33rd place, but fell from 28th to 34th position last year.
The University of Adelaide rejoined the top 200 this year after falling from 176th spot in the previous year.The rankings are also bad news for Tasmania. All Australian states and territories – except Tasmania – are represented in the top 400 universities worldwide.