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

Classification is:

1. the process of identifying types of institution based on their core functions or economic status.

2: the process of delineating the class of award gained by a student.

explanatory context

Classification, as a process typifying institutions, is not the same as ranking. Classification by function is often implied as having a latent or explicit ranking element (e.g., the classification by TheCentre (2003) The Good Guide for Australian Universities (2004) which classifies not by function but by a star rating).


Classification by economic sector is basically the differentiation into public/governmental, private for-profit corporations, not-for-profit private institutions of various types.


As Altbach (2002) notes, classification [by function] is an attempt to provide guidance through mass higher education systems.

Academic systems have become collections of varied types of academic institutions serving specialized clienteles, with different purposes, funded in a variety of ways, and with quite diverse levels of quality and accomplishment. Academic systems are increasingly large, with hundreds or even thousands of institutions serving a varied student population…. Most countries are coping with the challenges of understanding and controlling this complex new academic reality. However, few have been able to make sense of the often disorderly array of academic institutions—ranging from the most distinguished research universities to modest vocational schools serving a local clientele.


Classification can also apply to the economic sector in which institutions are located. For example, an OECD study of 23 countries (Dupa, 2003) identified whether universities were located in the general government sector, the non-financial corporations or as nonprofit institutions serving households


In the UK, The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, 2007) has classified higher education institutions into three groups: pre-1992 ('higher education institutions which had university status before the provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 came into force; and the two Northern Ireland universities'), post-1992 ('higher education institutions which acquired university status as a result of the provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992') and specialist institutions (has '60 per cent or more of its courses in one or two subjects only, such as music or art colleges'). In addition, there are other groupings of institutions by agreement between a group of institutions, such as the Russel Group, the Non-Aligned Group, Million+. However, these so-called mission groups are not helpful for classification purposes.


Classification of degree award is standard practice in the UK, for example, where students are usually awarded a first class, upper-second class, lower-second class, third class or unclassified degree at undergraduate level.

analytical review

Altbach (2002) describes the intention of institutional classification systems:

Classification Systems: … The purpose is to categorize institutions by function and role so that it will be easier to understand the differentiations that exist.

He notes that the United States has, since 1970, had the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, although it is in the process of being changed and perhaps dismantled. He states that:

It has been revised several times, most thoroughly in 1994, when it listed 3,595 institutions of postsecondary education in 10 major categories. In 2000, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published an interim revision of the classification in which the categories were reduced in number with the aim of emphasizing the teaching function in higher education.

The Carnegie Classification is not intended as a ranking of institutions, but rather as a way of categorizing them by function. However, some have seen the classification as an informal ranking, with the Research University I category as the most prestigious. Colleges and universities have often aspired to advance to the “next highest” category, for example, going from Baccalaureate College II to Baccalaureate College I, feeling that a ranking is implied in the categories. The Carnegie Foundation has long argued against using the classification as a ranking….The Carnegie Classification lists only accredited degree-granting institutions that are in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). (Altbach, 2002)

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (undated) states:

The Carnegie Classification has been the leading framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education for the past four decades. Starting in 1970, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education developed a classification of colleges and universities to support its program of research and policy analysis. Derived from empirical data on colleges and universities, the Carnegie Classification was originally published in 1973, and subsequently updated in 1976, 1987, 1994, 2000, 2005, and 2010 to reflect changes among colleges and universities. This framework has been widely used in the study of higher education, both as a way to represent and control for institutional differences, and also in the design of research studies to ensure adequate representation of sampled institutions, students, or faculty.
To ensure continuity of the classification framework and to allow comparison across years, the 2010 Classification update retains the same structure of six parallel classifications, initially adopted in 2005. They are as follows: Basic Classification (the traditional Carnegie Classification Framework), Undergraduate and Graduate Instructional Program classifications, Enrollment Profile and Undergraduate Profile classifications, and Size & Setting classification. These classifications provide different lenses through which to view U.S. colleges and universities, offering researchers greater analytic flexibility.
These classifications were updated using the most recent national data available as of 2010, and collectively they depict the most current landscape of U.S. colleges and universities

In Canada, the Maclean’s classification divides institutions in three broad types: Medical/Doctoral, Comprehensive  and Undergraduate universities. (see Lang Research, 2002).

Hayward (2012) presented the University Quality Assurance International Board (UQAIB) in Dubai with the following dfinition of classification:

Classification is a process of distinguishing on higher education provider from others so that students, families and stakeholders can make informed choices.


She identified four types of classification system based on iternational best practice: league tables, ratings, international rankings and classification sytems. The characteristics of each were outlined as follows:

League tables: a ranked list of universities and/or programmes in individual countries; often produced by commercial publishers; requires extensive data collection and analysis; examples include Guardian University Guide (UK), US News and World Report (USA) and McCleans (Canada).

Ratings: universities are arated against a set of criteria; often part of quality assurance and standards; produced by an independent quality assurance agency; requires extensive data; examples include SETARA in Malaysia; CHED in UAE; QA systems in Taiwan and Singapore.

International rankings: international universities ranked with each other; produced by universities or commercial institutions; requires extensive data collection and analysis; examples include Shanaghai Academic Ranking of World Universities; QS World International ranking; Times Higher Eduation World University Rankings.

Classification systems: enables comparison between institutions; often produced by governments or independent bodies; requires less data, most of which is in the public domain [i.e. type of institution]; examples include Carnegie Classification (USA), MyUniversity (Australia).

associated issues

Altbach (2002) argues:

precise definitions of the various functions of academic institutions are needed, to be followed by an objective categorization of academic institutions within countries and perhaps regions. Thoughtful classification of academic institutions can help prospective students choose the most appropriate institution, provide institutional categories to guide institutional planning as well as funding, and introduce some rationality into analyzing the increasingly complex array of academic institutions that characterize many national systems.

related areas

See also



Altbach, P. G., 2002, ‘Differentiation requires definition: the need for classification in complex academic systems’, International Higher Education, Winter 2002 available online at, accessed 3 August 2008, no longer available at this address 14 February 2011.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, undated,, The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, accessed 14 February 2011, the website has moved to, the quoted text is no longer evident but the site provides definitions 29 June 2019.

Dupa, J.P., 2003, Sector Classification of Universities, OECD, class="style7">, accessed 3 August 2008, not accessible 14 February 2011.

Good Guides, 2004, Good Guide for Australian Universities, The current version is available at the same address, accessed 31 December 2016, not available 21 June 2019.

Hayward, B., 2012, Dubai's Classification System for Higher Education, presentation at the UQAIB 2.0 Meeting 15 September 2012.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), 2007, Glossary, Last updated 5 December 2007, accessed, 3 August 2008. The current version, updated 8 November 2010, and accessed 14 February 2011, does not have an entry for classification.

Lang Research, 2002, Report on the Meta-Analysis of Post-Secondary Institutional Graduate Surveys, October (Montreal, Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation).

TheCentre, 2003, The Top American Research Universities,, page not found 3 August 2008.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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