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 22 September, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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core definition

Accreditation is the establishment of the status, legitimacy or appropriateness of an institution, programme (i.e. composite of modules) or module of study.

explanatory context

Accreditation may be of programmes or institutions. Accreditation is usually for a limited duration at which time re-accreditation procedures come into operation.

analytical review

The QEPSE-Leonardo (2011) Glossary states:

Accreditation is the establishment of the status, legitimacy or appropriateness of an institution, programme or module of study.

Zulassung, Akkreditierung: Die Gewährung des Status, der Legitimität oder Eignung einer Einrichtung, eines Programms oder Lernmoduls.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA, 2001) describes accreditation as:

The process of external quality review used in higher education to scrutinize colleges, universities, and higher education programs for quality assurance and quality improvement. Success results in an accredited institution and/or program.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (undated) has a narrower defiition (accessed 3 September 2012):

Accreditation is the approval of a higher education course by an authorised body.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (undated) defiition has changed, when viewed on 30 December 2016, to:

Accreditation is any process of approval leading to assurance that a programme meets the standards required by a particular profession, or for statutory or regulatory purposes


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

A process for verifying or approving a higher education programme, or provider, by an authorised external organisation. Programmes can be accredited by a professional or regulatory body such as the General Medical Council.


The basic idea of external scrutiny has remained relatively unchanged for several decades, although Chernay’s (1990) definition is rather more specific:

Accreditation assures the educational community, the general public, and other agencies or organisations that an institutions or programme (a) has clearly defined and educationally appropriate objectives, (b) maintains conditions under which their achievement can reasonably be expected, (c) is in fact accomplishing them substantially, and (d) can be expected to continue to do so.


Similarly, the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation (2003) states:

Accreditation is a system or process for providing public confidence and a tool for improvement used by educational institutions. It promises a basic level of quality in an educational institution through a process that examines a school's faculty, course content, recruiting practices, admissions procedures, and more. The purpose of accreditation is: to ensure quality education programs through the use of standards and rigorous evaluation criteria; tTo stimulate institutions toward higher levels of quality and efficiency; To provide a system for public trust and accountability.

Fraser (1994, p. 106) commented that ‘It is noteworthy that in this definition of accreditation there no requirement to judge whether the objectives of institution or programme are to meet any specified, or threshold standard’.


However, in elaborating what accreditation involves in the USA, CHEA suggests standards monitoring by stating that accreditation involves:

A collegial process of self-study and external peer review for quality assurance, accountability, and quality improvement of an academic institution or program designed to determine whether or not it has met or exceeded the published standards of its accrediting association and is achieving its mission and stated purpose. (CHEA, 2001)


Yet, the link between accreditation and explicit standards is ambiguous. According to one of the regional accrediting bodies, Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2003),

Accreditation is a means of self-regulation and peer review adopted by the educational community. The accrediting process is intended to strengthen and sustain the quality and integrity of higher education, making it worthy of public confidence. The extent to which each educational institution accepts and fulfills the responsibilities inherent in this process is a measure of its concern for freedom and quality in higher education and of its commitment to strive for and achieve excellence in its endeavors. (MSCHE, 2003)

Fraser (1994, p. 107) pointed out that:

In some countries, accreditation would imply that at least a threshold standard was intended and being achieved. For example, in the United Kingdom professional bodies accredit courses of study (programmes), meaning that graduates will be granted professional recognition.


The UNESCO view reinforces this: it has two definitions of accreditation:

1. The process by which a (non-)governmental or private body evaluates the quality of a higher education institution as a whole or of a specific educational programme in order to formally recognize it as having met certain predetermined minimal criteria or standards. The result of this process is usually the awarding of a status (a yes/no decision), of recognition, and sometimes of a license to operate within a time-limited validity. (Vlãsceanu, et al., 2007, p. 25)


2. The instrument by which one institution, without its own degree awarding powers or which chooses not to use its awarding powers, gains wide authority to award, and/or gains recognition of its qualifications from another competent authority, and to exercise powers and responsibility for academic provision. This authority might be the State, a government agency, or another domestic or foreign higher education institution. (Vlãsceanu, et al., 2004, p.26)


According to the European Training Foundation (1998)

Accreditation is the award of a status. Accreditation as a process is generally based on the application of predefined standards. It is primarily an outcome of evaluation.


The European University Association [formally CRE] defines accreditation as:

Accreditation is a formal published statement regarding the quality of an institution  or programme, following a cycle of evaluation based on agreed standards (CRE, now EUA, 2001).

Harvey (2002, p. 10) states:

Accreditation is the establishment or revalidation of the status, legitimacy or appropriateness of an institution, programme (i.e. composite of modules) or module of study. It has been described as a public statement that a certain threshold of quality is passed (Campbell et al., 2000; Kristoffersen, Sursock, & Westerheijden, 1998). The formal public recognition embodied in accreditation is seen as being based on agreed, pre-defined standards or criteria (El-Khawas, 1998; Sursock, 2000). Accreditation, thus has two nuances: first, the ‘abstract notion of a formal authorising power’, enacted via official decisions about recognition and, second, the quality label that institutions or programmes may acquire through certain accreditation procedures’ (Haakstad, 2001, p. 77).

Sursock (2010, p. 116), in examining trends in quality assurance in Western Europe states:

Accreditation is defined here as an evaluation process that ends with a summative judgment, leading to a formal approval process of a programme or institution. Evaluation is the process by which the quality of an institution or programme is assessed, often for the purpose of both improvement and accountability.


The Bologna Process website (ENQA, 2003) defines accreditation as follows:

As defined in the Bologna Declaration, the study structure of the European Higher Education Area should essentially be characterised by two cycles – undergraduate and graduate. Accreditation is a central instrument to support the necessary processes of changes in European higher education systems. Like vealuation, accreditation serves to assure quality when implementing new (ex ante steering) degree programmes and also to monitor existing ones (ex post steering). Accreditation, i. e. certification of a degree programme, will take place after review of the minimum standards for content and specialisation, the vocational relevance of the degree to be awarded and the coherence and consistency of the general conception of the degree programme. It will be awarded for a limited period of time within the frame of a transparent, formal and external peer review. Thus, the degree programme has to be reviewed after a certain time. The process of a peer review is steered by agencies which are also reviewed through regular external evaluation. The instrument of accreditation of certificate degree programmes is relatively new in Europe but is increasingly gaining acceptance in the countries involved in the Bologna process.


According to Campbell and Rozsnyai, EUA, considers accreditation as one possible outcome of quality assurance and defines it as:

a formal recognition of the fulfilment of minimum, publicly stated standards referring to the quality of a programme or an institution. (Campbell & Rozsnyai, 2002, p. 165)


Campbell and Rozsnyai  suggest that:

while accreditation has different definitions, forms and functions, it generally has the following characteristics: it provides [proof] (or not) that a certain standard is being met in a higher education course, programme or institution. The standard met can either be a minimum standard or a standard of excellence; it involves a benchmarking assessmentjudgements are based solely on quality criteria, never on political characteristics and always yes/no; the emphasis is on accountability (Campbell & Rozsnyai, 2002. p.31)


This view is, in part, based on the INQAAHE (2001, pp. 2–3) approach to explaining accreditation:

Accreditation is applicable both for an institution as a whole and for a programme. It is very difficult to define accreditation, because the concept is changing by the day. Although the terminology nowadays is imported into Europe too, the meaning there differs from the meaning of the term in the US, just as the role accreditation plays differs. Instead of a definition, some characteristics of accreditation are given:

·        Accreditation is a formal decision

·        Accreditation is based on an overall assessment of the HEI or its core activities

·        Accreditation is based on the assessment of at least minimum requirements (threshold quality)

·        Accreditation concerns a yes/no/conditional decision

·        Accreditation will have consequences, for example

-        In the professional field

-        Concerning recognition

-        Concerning funding

-        Concerning student aid

Accreditation might be seen as providing a formal quality certificate to an HEI or a program showing that the HEI or the program meets at least expected minimum requirements. 


Fraser (1994, p. 107) noted that accreditation can also mean granting of self- validating power:

The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) in the United Kingdom (Harris, 1990) and the Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation (Sensicle, 1992) use accreditation to mean that, subject to certain safeguards and to regular review, an institution is self-validating.


It is not immediately clear how self-validation differs from accreditation, other than it does not appear to be linked to explicit criteria of threshold standards, nor does it require the quality improvement scrutiny referred to in the CHEA (2004) definition.


Some definitions link it professional accreditation. For example, the Association Europeenne des Conservatoires (AEC, 2004)

A process of evaluating qualifications (or sometimes whole institutions) to determine whether they meet certain academic or professional criteria. A qualification which is accredited is recognised as meeting a certain standard and/or providing content which is required professionally.


UK universities, for example, prioritise professional accreditation (see Harvy and Mason, 1995), which for (UMIST, 2001) is:

a process of certifying the quality and standards of educational provision carried out by institutions such as the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and judging the suitability of provision in institutions for conferring professional status on the holders of degree qualifications from those institutions.


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

A self-regulatory process by which governmental, non-governmental, voluntary associations or other statutory bodies grant formal recognition to educational programs or institutions that meet stated criteria of educational quality. Educational programs or institutions are measured against certain standards by a review of written information, self-studies, site visits to the educational program, and thoughtful consideration of the findings by a review committee. Whereas programs or institutions are accredited, individual physicians are licensed or certified.

A rather more generic view has accreditation as:

a formal procedure used to determine the competence for performing certain kinds of measurements by taking into account the set criteria (Tempus, 2001)


Accreditation processes often involve: (i) a self-evaluation (ii) a study visit or peer review (iii) a decision by the accrediting body in the form of a report.


Although there tends to be a distinction between programme and institutional accreditation, some processes combine the two:

One of the peculiarities in the Hungarian approach to accreditation was its focus on the quality of degree programmes while conducting ‘institutional accreditation’. The declared reason for opting for this approach was the view that the output of education was the degree, which testified to the successful completion of a study programme. Although the unit of accreditation was taken to be the institution, whereby review teams with relevant academic backgrounds were assigned to each faculty, and with a co-ordinating team chair for the institution, the ‘institutional level’ was given only minor scrutiny. Institutions, for the first time in their history, were asked to formulate their mission statements, but the analysis of ‘how the institution’s teaching and research complies with the principles set down in its own mission statement’ (Guidebook 1997, p. 5) rarely made it into the accreditation report. In the institutional self-evaluation report, rectors and college directors were asked to describe their institution from the managerial point of view but this, too, remained a marginal consideration in the review. Nevertheless, these questions, and the entire, very elaborate self-evaluation process, were of considerable significance, since they acquainted Hungarian higher education with ‘quality culture’. Rozsnyai (2004 , p. 130)


van Kemenade and Hardjono (2010, p. 258) provide a list of definitions of accreditation drawn from four accrediting agencies, which all imply that minimum standards have to be met:

Accreditation is a formal, published statement regarding the quality of an institution or programme, following a cyclical evaluation based on agreed standards. (ACQUIN, Germany)
Accreditation is essentially an examination of results required to pass previously established quality criteria and standards for each type of degree, in order to be approved by the institution established by the law. (ANECA, Spain)
Accreditation is a formal and transparent process which uses defined standards to examine whether institutions and/or programmes offered at university level comply with minimum quality requirements. (OAQ, Switzerland)
Accreditation is providing a quality label as proof that certain requirements are met. (NVAO, The Netherlands and Flanders).

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) (2011) states:

Often a peer reviewed process to determine quality of an educational programby evaluating schools using a set of educational standards. In the United States, there are nationalaccrediting bodies and regional accrediting bodies that are established as a peer review process forvalidating quality. There are governmental and non-governmental accrediting bodies. It is importantto note there are reputable as well as dubious accrediting bodies, and the reputable accreditingbodies are approved by the United States Department of Education.

associated issues

Characteristics of accreditation


In the 1990s, accreditation was seen as a predominantly American process: ‘This term is most frequently used in the United States’ (Fraser, 1994, p. 106), but it has also been widespread in Central and South America and Eastern Europe and now has moved into the European Union as part of the Bologna Process. In addition, India has, since 1986 been undertaking extensive institutional accreditation.


Accreditation has three characteristics (Harvey 2004).

First, accreditation is a process applied to applicant organisations.

Second, accreditation is the label that institutions or programmes may acquire as a result of accreditation procedures.

Third, accreditation is an ‘abstract notion of a formal authorising power’ (Haakstad, 2001, p. 77), enacted via official decisions about recognition (the accreditation process). It is this underpinning abstraction that gives accreditation its legitimacy. This abstraction, frequently taken-for-granted, is not a traditionally intrinsic aspect of accreditation. As Jones (2002, p. 1) has pointed out, ‘The original audience for accreditation was the academy itself. The process did not arise in response to concerns about quality expressed by external audiences….’


In the review of the contributions in the first 15 years of the international journal Quality in Higher Education, Harvey and Williams (2010) write the following about the contributions on accreditation:

Accreditation was another aspect of quality assurance processes discussed in several articles. This was not, though, a concern early on and the first such article appeared in volume 7. Haakstad (2001) remarked on how, after a decade, the European debate on higher education, seemed to be moving into a new phase, with increased focus on accreditation. There are several reasons for this shift from quality enhancement to quality control but the most important of these may be harmonisation ambitions in Europe and in the general wish to increase international student mobility. He referred to a government-commissioned report on higher education reform in Norway and noted concern about what accreditation may do to the established tradition of constructive and development-oriented evaluations, based on a quality concept that is dynamic and relative rather than fixed and static. Haakstad argued that if one must have accreditation it should be at the institutional not programme level, based on a flexible, but reinforced audit method.

This wise analysis, however has subsequently been ignored in much of Europe and there have been costly and unnecessary programme accreditation schemes imposed, primarily by politicians, on the higher education sector in many countries.

Westerheijden (2001) noted that the Bologna Declaration of 1999 not only urged reform into the bachelor-master structure but also wanted transparency by making levels and types of quality of study programmes clear. Although not mentioned explicitly in the Bologna Declaration, in many Western European countries establishing such clarity has been interpreted as introducing programme accreditation instead of, or on top of, existing external quality assurance arrangements. In Europe, there were already accreditation mechanisms in many Central and Eastern European countries after the collapse of Communism. He suggested that rather than Western Europe looking to the US, it might find useful guidance from Eastern Europe on the issue of accreditation.

Faber and Huisman (2003) examined accreditation and related the European objectives, as stated in the various European initiatives, to the national quality assurance systems of the Netherlands and Denmark. They showed that while the Netherlands saw accreditation as the new cure, solving all problems that higher education is confronted with, Denmark took a different route, paving their path for mutual recognition in accordance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention. As it turned out, accreditation became unworkable in the Netherlands but Denmark did not learn from the experiences of others and adopted an unnecessarily cumbersome controlling approach to programme accreditation.

Scheele (2004) described accreditation as a ‘Licence to Kill’ and adopted the James Bond metaphor in a perceptive and amusing analysis of accreditation and the dominant ‘peer-evaluation’ approach. Using a Dutch trial accreditation report he showed that working methods of the evaluation are emphasised and, although in theory there are consequences, in the event of critical reports, systems in fact aim at improvement rather than sanctions. Heusser (2006) outlined the European Consortium for Accreditation in Higher Education project and noted that significant progress had been achieved in the process of mutual understanding of accreditation organisations and mutual recognition of accreditation procedures.

related areas

See also

accreditation body

institutional accreditation

programme accreditation

professional accreditation

specialized accreditation

accreditation status


accreditation survey

accreditation portfolio

accreditation status

duration of accreditation



Association europeenne des conservatoires [Academies de musique et musikhochschulen] (AEC), 2004, Glossary of terms used in relation to the Bologna Declaration, accessed September 2004. Not available at this address 31 January 2011.

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.

Chernay, G., 1990Accreditation and the Role of  the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA) (Washington DC, COPA

Council For Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) 2001, Glossary of Key Terms in Quality Assurance and Accreditation,, last updated 23 October 2002, accessed 18 September 2012, page not available 30 December 2016.

European Network of Quality Agencies (ENQA), 2003, The Bologna Process, Glossary, Accreditation,, accessed, 3 August, 2008, page changed to accessed 3 September 2012,page not available 30 December 2016.

European Training Foundation (ETF), 1998, Quality Assurance in Higher Education:  Manual of Quality Assurance in Higher Education: Procedures and Practices (Turin: European Training Foundation).

Faber, M. and Huisman, J., 2003, ‘Same voyage, different routes? The course of the Netherlands and Denmark to a ‘European model’ of quality assurance’, Quality in Higher Education, 9(3), pp. 231–242.

Fraser, M., 1994, ‘Quality in higher education: an international perspective’ in Green, D. (Ed.), 1994, What is Quality in Higher Education? pp. 101–111 (Buckingham, Open University press and Society for Research into Higher Education)

Haakstad, J., 2001, ‘Accreditation: the new quality assurance formula? Some reflections as Norway is about to reform its quality assurance system’, Quality in Higher Education, pp. 77–82.

Harris, R.W., 1990, ‘The CNAA accreditation and quality assurance’, Higher Education Review, 23(3), pp. 34–53.

Harvey, L., 2002, ‘Quality assurance in higher education: some international trends’ Higher Education Conference, Oslo, 22-23 January 2002, pp. 21–26, paper available as a pdf

Harvey, L., 2004, ‘The power of accreditation: views of academics', Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26 (2), pp. 207–223, final draft pre-proof copy available here.

Harvey, L and Mason, S. with Ward, R., 1995, The Role of Professional Bodies in Higher Education Quality Monitoring. Birmingham, QHE. Reconstructed report 2014 available here.

Harvey, L. and Williams, J. 2010, 'Fifteen Years of Quality in Higher Education, part 1', Quality in Higher Education, 16(1), pp. 4–36. Available here

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE ), undated, Glossary, available at, this is a new address, the original page was last updated 8 November 2010 but the new page is undated, accessed 3 September 2012, still available 30 December 2016, not at this address 19 June 2019.

Heusser, R., 2006, ‘Mutual recognition of accreditation decisions in Europe’, Quality in Higher Education, 12(3), pp. 253–256.

International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), 2011, The Online Learning Definitions Project, October, iNACOL.

International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE), 2001, Annex: Clarification and Glossary, to a questionnaire conducted in December, 2001. This is no longer the site of INQAAHE, document not accessible online 4 February 2011 but can be seen here.

Jones, D.P., 2002, Different Perspectives on Information About Educational Quality: Implications for the Role of Accreditation. Washington, CHEA Occasional Paper, April.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), 2003, Frequently Asked Questions: What is accreditation?, accessed 3 September 2012 , still available 30 December 2016, not found 19 June 2019.

QEPSE-Leonardo, 2011, Glossary, available at, accessed 5 March 2011, not available 29 January 2012.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 3 January 2017, not found 19 June 2019.

Rozsnyai. C., 2004,A decade of accreditation in Hungary: lessons learned and future directions’, Quality in Higher Education, 10(4) pp. 129–38. (see, accessed 3 August 2008, not available 29 January 2011.

Scheele, K., 2004, ‘Licence to kill: about accreditation issues and James Bond’, Quality in Higher Education, 10(3), pp. 285–293.

Sensicle, A., 1992, ‘The Hong Kong initiative’, in Craft A. (Ed.), 1992, Quality Assurance in Higher Education (London, Falmer).

Sursock, A., 2010, 'Accountability in Western Europe: Shift ing quality assurance paradigms', in Stensaker, B. and Harvey, L. (Eds.), 2010, Accountability in Higher Education, New York, Routledge.

Tempus, 2001, Glossary of the terms related to quality assurance Development of Quality Assurance System in Higher Education(QUASYS) Tempus Joint European Project, UM JEP-16015-2001, accessed 3 August 2008, not available 29 January 2011.

van Kemenade, E. & Hardjono, T.W, 2010, ‘A critique of the use of self-evaluation in a compulsory accreditation system’, Quality in Higher Education, 16(3), p. 258. 

Vlãsceanu, L.,  Grünberg, L., and Pârlea, D., 2007,  Quality Assurance and Accreditation: A Glossary of Basic Terms and Definitions (Bucharest , UNESCO-CEPES) Revised and updated edition. ISBN 92-9069-186-7, available at, accessed 19 June 2019.

Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation, 2003, FAQs, available at , accessed 3 September 2012, page not available 30 December 2016.

University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), 2001, Annex 1: Glossary, UM/DG/005, posted 30/08/01, not accessible 3 August 2008.

Westerheijden, D.F., 2001, ‘Ex oriente lux?: national and multiple accreditation in Europe after the fall of the Wall and after Bologna ’, Quality in Higher Education, pp. 65–76.

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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