Higher higher learning

AUSTRALIA'S Olympic team might have fallen short of expectations in London, but in academic performance we're ranked in an elite group.

New university rankings released today show Australia has pushed into fourth place for the world's top institutes.

Australia has five universities in the world's top 100. Melbourne University is Australia's highest ranked institute at 57th place in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings.

The Australian National University followed in 64th.

The US, Britain and Japan led the table for the top universities. American universities dominated the top four individual spots. Harvard retained first place for the 10th year.

Professor Simon Marginson, of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, said the improved rankings were good news for Australian universities.

He said they helped to attract talented staff and students to Australian institutes, and world-recognised universities were an important part of the identity of major cities.

''You can't imagine a global city that doesn't have major universities,'' he said.

The rankings are based on research performance and major awards, including Nobel prizes.

Melbourne University provost Margaret Sheil said the institute's ranking continued a trend of improvement in recent years. The university came 60th in the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings last year.

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