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 3 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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core definition

Excellence means exhibiting characteristics that are very good and, implicitly, not achievable by all.

explanatory context

Excellence enshrines one meaning of quality: a traditional view that associates quality with the exceptional.

analytical review

As one of the five definitions of quality, Harvey and Green, (1993) state:

The exceptional view sees quality as something special. Traditionally, quality refers to something distinctive and élitist, and, in educational terms is linked to notions of excellence, of ‘high quality’ beyond that to which most institutions or scholars can aspire.


The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (2000) note:

Excellence is generally taken to mean outstanding, or of a quality that surpasses a defined threshold in a particular field. In the case of research, there is no agreed way in which excellence is defined or measured uniformly across different disciplines at the international level, although some attempts have been made using bibliometric analyses, with limited success. The UK Higher Education Funding Councils currently seek to measure the quality of research at the national level in all subject areas through periodic Research Assessment Exercises. The RAE does this by assessing research against assumed measures of international excellence. It does not however seek to benchmark quality against international comparators since there are no internationally agreed measures of quality.


The Higher Education and Research Opportunities in the United Kingdom (HERO) site provides the following definition of Research Achievements and Interpretation of the Rating Scale for the RAE:

'International excellence' is defined as a quality of research which makes an intellectually outstanding contribution in either or both of these respects. The definition has no connection with the subject matter of the research in question , which may be of any kind within the UoA boundaries defined above.

'National excellence' is defined as a quality of research which makes an intellectually substantial contribution to new knowledge and understanding and/or to original thought.


In a paper entitled, The Power of Quality, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Qualität e.V., a member and national partner organisation of the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM), states:

Excellence is defined as exceptionally good performance in all areas of management.


University of St. Thomas (2004) notes:

Excellence is defined by UST Deans and Directors as "doing it all". Academic excellence is defined by UST Academic Excellence Committee as "engaging his or her discipline with an attitude of intellectual curiousity and a desire to make meaningful contributions to the field", "sharing his or her scholarly inquiries with students in a systematic and meaningful way so as to enhance their collegiate experience".


Relating excellence to service provision, University of Louisville (1995) states:

“Operational excellence” is defined as a focus on reliability, convenience, and price competitiveness. Customers would expect total availability, security and integrity of the infrastructure and services. Customers expect reliability to be the norm, followed by convenience (delivery of quick, dependable service), and then price competitiveness (lowest price.)


In a decision of a grievance brought by David F. Graf (Docket No. 99-BOT-051) against the Board Of Trustees/West Virginia University, in 1996–97 relating to tenure and promotion it was stated that:

The Policy specifically states, “[i]n order to be recommended for tenure or promotion in rank, a faculty member will be expected to demonstrate excellence in two of the following areas: research, teaching in the classroom or other settings, and service.” Excellence is defined as “performance which meets or exceeds that of peers recently achieving similar promotion and/or tenure who are respected for their contributions in research, instruction and service at West Virginia University and peer research universities.”


SSAU (2005) stated: :

The university’s mission and vision statement is then cited in order to provide a definition of ‘excellence’ as ‘being an internationally respected academic institution, affirming its African identity, producing internationally recognised graduates and making a contribution to the advancement of international scholarship and to the development of the [province] and South Africa’.

In describing the shift towards a system of funding 'excellent research' in Swedish higher education, Hallonsten and Silander (2012) explained the nature of excellence thus:

Academic institutions were given a kind of market niche of organising excellent research environments in order to produce and diffuse relevant (and measurable) pieces of knowledge and thus make tangible contributions to society and the economy. Excellence is then understood as a policy-tailored adaptation of the eternally contested concept of quality, that is, an evaluative concept rather than a generally desirable ideal for scientific research.... Although considerable criticism has been targeted towards the very concepts excellence and well as attempts to implement and operationalise them..., they appear favourable for policymakers and managers as a way of legitimising research expenditure as well as a rough map to guide priorities...

associated issues

Harvey and Green (1993) further develop the notion of quality as excellence as follows:

Quality as exceptional

The exceptional notion of quality sees it as something special. There are three variations on this. First, the traditional notion of quality as distinctive, second, a view of quality as  exceeding very high standards (or ‘excellence’) and third, a weaker notion of exceptional quality, as passing a set of required (minimum) standards.

1. Traditional notion of quality

Traditionally, the concept of quality has been associated with the notion of distinctiveness, of something special or ‘high class’. The traditional notion of quality implies exclusivity: for example, the supposed high quality of an Oxbridge education. Quality is not determined through an assessment of what is provided but is based on an assumption that the distinctiveness and inaccessibility of an Oxbridge education is of itself ‘quality’. This is not quality to be judged against a set of criteria but the quality, separate and unattainable for most people.

The traditional notion of quality does not offer benchmarks against which to measure quality. It does not attempt to define quality. One instinctively knows quality (as the butler says in the Croft sherry adverts). The traditional concept of quality is useless when it comes to assessing quality in education because it provides no definable means of determining quality.

2. Exceeding high standards (Excellence 1)

Excellence is often used interchangeably with quality. There are two notions of excellence in relation to quality, excellence in relation to standards and excellence as ‘zero defects’ (which is discussed below in section 2).

Excellence 1 sees quality in terms of ‘high’ standards. It is similar to the traditional view but identifies what the components of excellence are, while at the same time ensuring that these are almost unattainable. It is elitist in as much as it sees quality as only possibly attainable in limited circumstances. The best is required if excellence is to result. In the education context, if you are lectured by Nobel prizewinners, have a well equipped laboratory with the most up-to-date scientific apparatus and a well stocked library, then you may well produce excellent results. 

Excellence 1 is about excelling in input, and output. An institution that takes the best students, provides them with the best resources, both human and physical, by its nature excels. Whatever the process (by which students learn) the excellence remains.

Excellence 1, with its emphasis on the ‘level’ of input and output, is an absolutist measure of quality. The notion of centres of excellence in higher education is based on this notion of quality and it can be seen in the original conception of the CTCs, for example.

.3. Checking Standards

The final notion of quality as exceptional dilutes the notion of excellence. A ‘quality’ product in this sense is one that has passed a set of quality checks. Rather than unattainable, the checks are based on attainable criteria that are designed to reject ‘defective’ items.

‘Quality’ is thus attributed to all those items that fulfil the minimum standards set by the manufacturer or monitoring body. Quality is thus the result of ‘scientific quality control’.

At any given moment there will be an ‘absolute’ benchmark (or standard) against which the product is checked, those that satisfy the criteria will pass the quality threshold. The benchmarks may be set internally or externally, the Which? reports are an example of the latter. Checking for quality may be pass/fail or it may be on a scale. The Which? reports provide a quality rating, as do final degree results in higher education institutions.

The standards approach to quality implies that quality is improved if standards are raised. A product that meets a higher standard is a higher quality product. In education, quality has often been equated with the maintenance and improvement of standards.

This approach to quality implicitly assumes that ‘standards’ are ‘objective’ and static. However, standards are negotiated and subject to continued renegotiation in the light of changed circumstances.


In an article entitled ‘Defining Excellence in Graduate Studies’ Laurie Carlson Berg (University of Regina ) and Linda Sabatini report a study of definitions of excellence provided by Master’s degree and doctoral candidates, identified by their department as “excellent,” and by chairs of graduate programmes at two western Canadian universities.

To summarize, faculty members’ definitions tended to focus primarily on external markers of success rather than on personal characteristics of graduate students. These markers of success included publications, conference papers, scholarships, awards, research grants, and grades. One of the two universities placed equal weight on innovation in research. The ability to communicate one’s learning to the community was also deemed important. Some specific skills of graduate students were mentioned, including critical thinking and communication. Both graduate faculty respondents and graduate student interview participants mentioned the importance of visibility in the department and the community.

The graduate student participants made infrequent mention of external indicators, such as grades. Some mentioned the ability to garner funding as a factor that may have led to them being identified as excellent by their department. Most attributed their identification as excellent to their own actions and internal attributes, such as initiative, passion for learning, and other personal attributes mainly related to self-motivation. One external factor they did frequently mention was the cutting edge nature of their research or the popularity of their topic of research. The graduate students acknowledged academic and social supports but described them as secondary in the degree of influence to personal qualities and skills. The graduate students also identified factors that slowed their pursuit of excellence, such as degree of expertise the supervisor possessed in the particular area the student was researching, lack of certainty of funding, the structure of the program, and the working environment.

Chris Brink (2010) warned against the notion of excellence:

The quality assurance debate arguably started with the notion of quality as excellence; that is, top quality. However, three difficulties soon appeared. First, reputation easily becomes a proxy for excellence, which gives the advantage to the old, the rich and the beautiful. Often this leads to imitation, as when universities style themselves as the ‘Oxbridge of Africa’, the ‘Princeton of Europe’ or the ‘Harvard of the East’. Second, the notion of quality as excellence has the drawback that ‘elite universities’ so easily come across as being elitist, evoking images of exclusivity and unfair advantage. Third, and most importantly, if quality is construed as excellence, we are led from a substantive notion to a relational one. Excellence, in the sense of exceptional quality, comes to be seen not as the answer to the question ‘Is it good?’ but as the answer to the question ‘Is it better than the others?’ With that, it becomes all too easy to assume that quality manifests itself essentially as a ranking on a linear scale. (Brink, 2010, p. 140)

related areas

See also



Brink, C., 2010, ‘Quality and standards: clarity, comparability and responsibility’, Quality in Higher Education, 16(2), 139–52.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Qualität e.V, The Power of Quality, accessed, May 2005, not available at this address 5 March 2011.

Harvey, L. and Green, D., 1993, ‘Defining quality’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 18(1). pp. 9–34. pre-publication draft available here

Hallonsten, O. and Silander, C., 2012, 'Commissioning the University of Excellence: Swedish research policy and new public research funding programmes' Quality in Higher Education, 18(3).

Higher Education and Research Opportunities in the United Kingdom (HERO) 2000,, last updated 17 April 2000, not available at this address 5 March 2011.

SSAU, 2005, ‘SSAU audit portfolio: Enhancing the student experience.’ Prepared between January and June 2005 for an institutional audit to be undertaken by the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) 5–9 September 2005.

Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, 2000, Research and the Knowledge Age, Consultation paper HEC/02/00, 1 January 2000,, not available at this address 5 March 2011.

University of Louisville, 1995,, not available at this address 5 March 2011.

University of St. Thomas, 2004,, last updated August 2004, not available at this address 5 March 2011.

West Virginia University 1997, DAVID F. GRAF v BOARD OF TRUSTEES/WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY, Docket No. 99-BOT-051, , accessed 15 September 2012, page not available 3 January 2017.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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