Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-21, 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 18 June, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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core definition

Accountability is the requirement, when undertaking an activity, to expressly address the concerns, requirements or perspectives of others.

explanatory context

Accountability has, since the 1990s, been a widely used term linked to many public services, including higher education. It is seen a major purpose of external quality processes. However, it is a term that is rarely explicitly defined in the literature.

analytical review

On-line dictionaries state that:

Accountability is responsibility to someone or for some activity. (Freedictionary)

The QEPSE-Leonardo (2011) Glossary states:

Accountability is the requirement, when undertaking an activity, to expressly address the concerns, requirements or perspectives of others.

Verantwortlichkeit: Die Erfordernis, beim Übernehmen einer Handlung ausdrücklich die Anliegen, Anforderungen und Perspektiven anderer anzusprechen.

In the higher education context, responsibility is to a range of stakeholders, although being held to account for expenditure of public money predominates in most elaborations of accountability.

Accountability: The assurance of a unit to its stakeholders that it provides education of good quality. (Cambell & Rozsnyai, 2002)


Accountability is defined as demonstrating the worth and use of public resources.  Higher education in most countries has been faced with greater demands to demonstrate its worth and to account for its use of public resources, partly as a result of fierce competition for tightened state funds and partly as a result of other restructuring taking place throughout the public sector. (Lewis et al., 2001)


The PA Consulting(2000, p.6) study for the Higher education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), in the UK, noted that:

HEIs in England receive over £6 billion of public money a year for which they are held to account – via statutes (e.g. higher education and science and technology Acts), regulations (e.g. the financial memorandum between HEFCE and each HEI), and contracts (e.g. with Research Councils, the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) and the National Health Service (NHS)). The independent, self-governing status of HEIs does not absolve them from accountability for their use of public funding. 


It goes on to elaborate this but also point to other forms of accountability:

In the words of the Nolan Committee: “Wherever a citizen receives a service which is paid for wholly or in part by the taxpayer, then the government must retain appropriate responsibility for safeguarding the interests of both users and taxpayers, regardless of the status of the service provider”. Accountability in this context refers to the purposes for which public money is voted by Parliament, and the conditions under which institutions receive public funding. These purposes and conditions are embodied in the relevant statutes, regulations and contracts. Responsibility for assuring them is vested in the Accounting Officer chain, which extends from the Permanent Secretary of the sponsoring government departments via the Chief Executive of the relevant spending agencies (HEFCE, TTA, the Research Councils, etc.) to the designated Principal Officer, usually the Vice Chancellor or Principal, of each HEI. But accountability expectations increasingly go beyond this fiduciary compliance to include the achievement of Government policy objectives, even when the service providers, namely the HEIs, are constitutionally independent of Government. The Government has placed increasing emphasis on securing specified outputs and outcomes from publicly funded activities in response to community expectations about improving service quality and policy effectiveness. This is reflected in output-based funding models and increasing attention to outcome-based performance targets. (PA Consulting, 2000, p. 10).


In its Glossary, HEFCE (undated) define accountability as:

The process through which institutions and individuals are expected to demonstrate the fulfilment of their obligations, including the proper use of public funds.

The newer HEFCE (undated) Glossary defines accountability as:

The obligation on universities, colleges and nominated individuals to explain how well they have met their responsibilities, including the proper use of public funds.


This financial underpinning is mediated in some settings to encompass governance rather than specifically value for tax-payers money:

Accountability: A public or private organisation must be accountable to the organisation and to society in general to ensure good governance. This means that information about set goals that have been achieved and how they have been achieved should be transparent. Universities, as public organisations, also work to establish the appropriate mechanisms to make themselves accountable to their sector and to citizens. (CPUR, 2003, p. 1)

In some settings, accountability is closely linked to performance evaluation:

Accountability implies the assessment of performance, the public communication of information about performance, and the potential for sanctions or rewards.      Combining these words leads quickly to questions about content, power relationships, and legitimacy in educational accountability. At the outset one must ask, who is accountable, for what, and to whom? Then, are the goals and standards appropriate, are the measurements of performance valid and reliable, do those seeking to hold others accountable have legitimate expertise and authority? (NCAHE, 2004)


An alternative view relates accountability to collective responsibility:

accountability [in education] is defined as: the assurance that all education stakeholders accept responsibility and hold themselves and each other responsible for every learner having full access to quality education, qualified teachers, challenging curriculum, full opportunity to learn, and appropriate, sufficient support for learning so they can achieve at excellent levels in academic and other student outcomes.

By implication in this definition, where the system and those who are responsible for it fail the learner, they also share the blame. No one group of stakeholders can point the finger of blame at any other. All stakeholders bear the responsibility for student school success and the blame when students are not successful. (IDRA, 2002)


A Canadian definition links accountability to public rather than private responsibility

Accountability is defined as the degree to which provincial governments ensure that universities and colleges are in fact accountable to the public, and not to corporations or individual sponsors or clients. In addition, it means that universities and colleges, and their functions of teaching, research and community service remain in the public domain and are not privatized. This is determined largely by the amount of public funding dedicated to post-secondary education budgets, as compared to funding from private donations or student fees, which download the cost of education to individuals. (Doherty-Delorme and Shaker, 2001, p. 9)


Wojtczak (2002) defines accountability in the context of medical education as:

Responsibility for the decisions and capability to explain to others or the public all undertaken activities to carry out what was obliged to do; to ensure reaching or making progress towards planned objectives or targets.

associated issues

The reasons for accountability include the cost and potential problems of massification, the concomitant need to account for increasing amounts of public money, the need to ensure value for both private and public monies, lack of clear lines of accountability within higher education systems, globalisation and the need to keep control of a increasingly unrestricted market (Harvey, 2002). For NCAHE (2004):

the ultimate purposes of  accountability systems [is] to improve performance, to assure quality, to sustain confidence.


Functions of accountability

Accountability has five main functions.


The first function of accountability is, via external evaluations, to ensure that the institution or programme is accountable to appropriate stakeholders such as the government (on behalf of tax payer), professions, employers and students. Often there is a clear concern to ensure that public money is spent appropriately — in short, to ensure value for money of teaching and learning, research, resources and management. Research assessment exercises and assessment of teacing and learning, along with statistical data on student progression and achievement and graduate employment have inter alia been used as accountability measures, or performance indicators.


A second accountability function is to ensure that that principles and practices within higher education are not being eroded or flouted. This form of accountability is mainly used to control the development of private providers but can be used to ensure that public providers do not become lax. Accreditation, audit, assessment and standards monitoring all have a role to play here.


Third, is accountability to students that the programme is organised and run properly and that and appropriate educational experience is both promised and delivered: increasingly, in some countries, that they are getting value for the money they are personally investing. This overlaps with assessments that attempt to monitor service quality.


A fourth accountability purpose of quality evaluation procedures is the generation of public information about the quality of institutions and programmes. This is both information for funders, which can be used, for example, to aid funding allocation decisions and information for users (such as prospective students and graduate recruiters) that supposedly helps inform choice.


A fifth, accountability purpose is to use quality evaluation as a vehicle to achieve compliance. Evaluation encourages compliance to (emerging or existing) government policy or to the preferences or policy of stakeholders such as professional bodies and employer lobbies. Government is usually the most important and powerful of these for higher education because it supplies so much of the money and in many cases controls the licensing of institutions. Governments around the world are looking for higher education to be more responsive. This includes responding to value-for-money imperatives, making higher education more relevant to social and economic needs, widening access to higher education and expanding numbers, usually in the face of decreasing unit cost. In addition there is pressure to ensure comparability of provision and procedures, within and between institutions, including international comparisons (Harvey, 2002).


Accountability and improvement

A second key issue that has been around for a decade is the relationship between accountability and improvement. Some people involved in quality assurance have argues that although at time conflicting the two aspects can be resolved, even within the same organisation. Indeed, many systems of quality evaluation, accreditation, audit, assessment attempt to be accountable while advocating improvement.


The issues, though remain. The tension between accountability and continuous quality improvement was pointed out by Vroeijenstijn and Acherman (1990). Arguably, accountability is about value for money and fitness for purpose , while continuous improvement in teaching and learning is about enhancement of the student experience, and empowering students as life-long learners.


The accountability-led view sees improvement as a secondary function of the monitoring process. Such an approach argues that a process of external monitoring of quality, ostensibly for purposes of accountability, is likely to lead to improvement as a side effect. Requiring accountability, it is assumed, will lead to a review of practices, which in turn will result in improvement.


However, this has been questioned on three grounds:


First, it is likely that, faced with a monitoring system that demands accountability, academics will comply with requirements in such a way as to minimize disruption to their existing academic practices.


Second, where accountability requires the production of strategic plans, clear objectives, quality assurance systems, and so on, then there may be an initial impetus towards quality improvement. However, there is little evidence to suggest a sustained momentum as a result of this initial push. Accountability systems, in short, are unlikely to lead to a process of continuous quality improvement. The argument is that improvement comes from a changed culture and local ownership, which compliance processes do not encourage.


Third, accountability approaches tend to demotivate staff who are already involved in innovation and quality initiatives. Not only do they face the added burden of responding to external scrutiny there is also a feeling of being manipulated, of not being trusted or valued, by managers and outside agencies (Harvey, 1994).

related areas

See also





public information


value for money


Campbell, C. & Rozsnyai, C., 2002, Quality Assurance and the Development of Course Programmes. Papers on Higher Education Regional University Network on Governance and Management of Higher Education in South East Europe Bucharest, UNESCO.

Doherty-Delorme, D. and Shaker, E., 2001, Missing Pieces II An Alternative Guide To Canadian Post-Secondary Education. 2000/2001 Provincial Rankings: Where Do the Provinces Stand on Education? January, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Paper no longer accessible at this address., 2004, ‘Accountability’,, item no longer accessible at this address

Harvey, L., 2002, ‘Quality assurance in higher education: some international trends'  Higher Education Conference, Oslo , 22–23 January 2002. Paper here, final draft subsequently adapted and published as Harvey, L., 2005, ‘Quality assurance in higher education: some international trends’ in Wietse de Vries (coord.) Calidad, eficiencia y evaluación de la educación superior, Netbiblo-Riseu, La Coruña, España, ISBN 8497450302, chapter available here.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE ), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 30 December 2016, not at this address 19 June 2019.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), 2010, About us: Glossary, available at, updated 8 November 2010, accessed 14 February 2011, not available 30 December 2016.

Intercultural Development Research Association (IRDA), 2002, IDRA Newsletter, May 2002, accessed October 2004. Newsletter no longer accessible at this address, 20 January 2011.

Lewis, D.R, Ikeda, T. and Dundar, H., 2001, ‘On the use of performance indicators in Japan's higher education reform agenda' Nagoya Journal of Higher Education 1.

National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education (NCAHE), 2004, Overview, State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), undated accessed October 2004. Overview no longer accessible at this address.

PA Consulting , 2000, Better accountability for higher education: Summary of a review for the HEFCE, Report August 00/36.

QEPSE-Leonardo, 2011, Glossary, available at, accessed 5 March 2011, not available 30 January 2012.

Wojtczak, A., 2002, Glossary of Medical Education Terms,, December, 2000, Revised February 2002, accessed 2 September 2012, page not available 30 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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