Universities around the world compete keenly for recognition. Each year, they therefore pay considerable attention to global rankings, including those published in the Times Higher Education supplement.
In recent years, this has not made pleasant reading. The University of Auckland, New Zealand's best, has fallen from 46th in 2006 to 82nd. In the same six years, our other universities have, if anything, fared worse; Massey, for example, has slumped from 213th to 329th.
The consequences are substantial, not least in the universities' attraction to overseas students and the increasing number of able young New Zealanders choosing to study overseas. In that context, University of Auckland vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon's call for a decision on the kind of university system that New Zealand wants is timely.
He puts the problem succinctly. New Zealand universities operate with the lowest expenditure per student of any system in the developed world. This is the outcome of an opening of entry to that system, under which the number of students at Auckland trebled between 1983 and 2008. Inevitably, the academic standards of many universities dropped as they competed for an increasing number of students in any number of courses. Now, the implications are fully apparent.
Increased Government funding is out of the question, so Professor McCutcheon offers several options that would enable the university system to compete globally for the best and brightest.
These include reduced student numbers, higher tuition fees, a student loans scheme that supplies more bang for every taxpayer buck, and greater differentiation across the tertiary sector.
Such differentiation would recognise that any country can have only a limited number of top-ranking universities, and that investment choices in different parts of the sector must be made.
What New Zealand could not have at the same time, said Professor McCutcheon, were large student numbers, heavily constrained government funding, low tuition fees, a uniform tertiary system and high quality.
The most obvious way to increase quality is to reduce the number of people at our universities. In that event, there would be increased investment per student at no extra cost to the taxpayer. And fewer places would mean higher entry standards must be set. Steps have been taken in that direction, most notably by Auckland.
Tougher admission standards have also been underpinned by the Qualifications Authority, which has decreed that from 2014, secondary school pupils will go to university only if they gain NCEA Level 3, meet stronger literacy requirements than those now required and achieve at a similarly higher numeracy level.
There is also much to be said for universities being encouraged to strive for global recognition in certain fields of expertise. Auckland, again, has been the leader here. Three years ago, it was placed in the world's top 50 in three subject areas - arts and humanities, life sciences and biomedicines, and social sciences.
Such successful specialisation should be recognised and cultivated. An institution that achieves a top rating in a particular field attracts respected academics and research funding. This, in turn, attracts students from around the world and helps to retain more of New Zealand's brightest youth.
Such an approach is routinely criticised as elitist. But Professor McCutcheon has emphasised the perils of the present approach. Other small nations, such as Denmark and Singapore, have found a way to have at least one university ranked higher than New Zealand's best.
This country will pay a heavy price if it does not place a similar accent on quality, not quantity.