Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-17, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 7 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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Academic standards

core definition

Academic standards refer to the achievement of students and can be either the standard set (to be met or surpassed) or the standard achieved by a student.

explanatory context

The standard set for a student would include, for example, the pass mark on an examination.

A specified standard might include the specification of particular skills and abilities (in some circumsances these are similar to what are known as benchmark standards or benchmark statements)

The achievement attained by a student is also referred to as the acadmic standard of the student, for example achieving a first-class degree.

Academic standards that embody required comptetences that meet the specifications of professional bodies are usually refered to as standards of competence

analytical review

Harvey (2006) sees academic standards as one of four broad areas in higher education where standards are set and assessed:

Academic standards relate to the intellectual abilities of students. It is the demonstrated ability to meet specified level of academic attainment, usually relating to objectives or stated outcomes, operationalised via performance on assessed pieces of work. In this context, the grade achieved by the student would be the academic standard of the student, the ‘quality standard’ would be the pass mark (minimum grade to required to achieve the award). For research, standards are assessed, for example, via peer recognition.

Thompson-Whiteside (2011) states:

Academic standards are largely unknown, especially to those outside of teaching and learning practice or outside of particular discipline. As a result, employers’ understanding of quality and standards differ considerably to standards within the university.... In essence an academic standard is an abstract, multi-dimensional concept, used and interpreted in a variety of ways by different stakeholders.... The setting and judgement of a ‘good’ standard is largely bound in the context of what is being judged and who is judging it.

Fifteen years ago, the United Kingdom Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC, 1997) defined academic standards as:

explicit levels of academic attainment which are used to describe and measure academic requirements and achievements of individual students and groups of students.

This definition, which was set in the context of the Graduate Standards Programme, from which subsequently grew subject benchmarks, is very close to the definition of benchmark statements.

More recently, in Australia, the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) has developed the Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project, which has similarities with the UK benchmarking and defines academic standards as:

learning outcomes described in terms of discipline-specific knowledge, discipline-specific skills including generic skills as applied in the discipline and discipline-specific capabilities. (ALTC, 2010, p. 1).

In a recent article discussing the nature of academic standards, Bloxham (2012, p. 2) sums up various definitions as follows:

Defining the term: academic standards

It is necessary to commence with a brief discussion of the definition of academic standards. Authors have noted that academic standards are conceptually complex and difficult to define (Woolf & Cooper, 1999; Coates, 2010). Middlehurst (1996) has described the term as composite, including input, process and output elements. Harvey (2002) distinguished academic standards from standards of competence, service standards and organisational standards by centring his definition on academic attainment. This definition is similar to that of Alderman (2009, p. 12) who referred to academic standards as ‘discrete levels of intellectual performance, the attainment of which results in the award of academic credit’ and Sadler (1989, p. 129) who described them as ‘a designated degree or level of performance or excellence’. This output approach is also evident in the definition used by higher education quality agencies, for example in Australia (Coates, 2010) and the United Kingdom (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), 2010). Based on this consensus, this article will use the term ‘academic standards’ as related to prescribed and recognised levels of student attainment.

Universities UK (2008, p. 23 note 1) defines academic standards thus:

‘Academic ‘standards’ describe the level of achievement (i.e. the threshold) that a student has to reach to gain a particular degree or other academic award.’ (UUK, 2008, p. 23 note 1)


The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA, undated) in the UK states:

Academic standards: The standards set by degree-awarding bodies for their courses (programmes and modules) and expected for their awards.

associated issues

Relationship between standards and quality

Standards and quality have multiple meanings and the following table outlines the relationship between standards and quality and illustrates how 'academic standards fit in and how they ar externally assurance and checked.

related areas

See also



external examiner



quality standard


standards monitoring


Alderman, G., 2009, ‘Defining and measuring academic standards: a British perspective’, Higher Education Management and Policy, 21(3), pp. 11–22.

Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC), 2010, Learning and Teaching Academic Standards - Progress report. Melbourne, ALTC.

Coates, H., 2010, ‘Defining and monitoring academic standards in Australian higher education’, Higher Education Management and Policy, 22(1), pp. 41–58.

Harvey, L., 2006, 'Understanding quality', Section B 4.1-1 of ' Introducing Bologna objectives and tools' in Purser, L. (Ed.) EUA Bologna Handbook: Making Bologna work, Brussels European University Association and Berlin, Raabe. (not available 29 December 2016). A final draft of the paper can be viewed here as a pdf.

Harvey, L., 2002, ‘Evaluation for what?’, Teaching in Higher Education, 7(3), pp. 246–63. A final draft of the paper can be viewed here as a pdf .

Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC), 1997, Graduate Standards Programme: Final Report (Two volumes). London, HEQC.

Middlehurst, R., 1996, ‘Degree standards and quality assurance. a discussion’, in Brennan, J. (Ed.), Changing Conceptions of Academic Standards (London, Open University Quality Support Centre).

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), 2010, Evaluation of the Academic Infrastructure: Final report (Gloucester, UK, QAA).

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 7 January 2017.

Sadler, D.R., 1989, ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems’, Instructional Science, 18(2), pp. 119–44.

Thompson-Whiteside, S., 2011, Who sets the standards in higher education?, paper for AAIR Forum 2011, available at accessed 18 September 2012 (no page numbers), still available 29 December 2016.

UniversitiesUK, 2008, Quality and Standards in UK Universities: A guide to how the system works, November. London, UniversitiesUK.

Woolf, H. & Cooper, A., 1999, ‘Benchmarking academic standards in history: an empirical exercise’, Quality in Higher Education, 5(2), pp. 145–54.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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