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

An indicator is something that points to, measures or otherwise provides a summary overview of a specific concept. A set of indicators that are combined is referred to as an index.

explanatory context

An indicator is an attempt to provide a measure of a theoretical concept or a dimension or aspect of a theoretical concept. When a number of indicators are combined into a composite measure, the result is an index.

In the higher education context, indicator is usually a shorthand for performance indicator. For example, the UNESCO Higher Education Indicators Study. Accountability and International Cooperation in the Renewal of Higher Education, uses indicator and performance indicator interchangeably. Under the heading ‘Selection of performance indicators’ it states that the goal of the study “must be to attain a common set of indicators to review higher education standards, needs and priorities in different regions,”. Further it states: “This takes each goal and action from UNESCO's Framework for Priority Action and shows which currently available indicator or statistic can be used to help to measure performance against that goal.”

analytical review

The UNESCO (2001, p. 11) study states:

Three kinds of indicators have been noted by Cave, Hanney, Henkel and Kogan (1997). Their distinction between “simple”, “performance” and “general” indicators has been adopted in this study to assist Member States in interpreting the meaning and application of the indicators as shown in the Annex. Definitions of the three kinds of indicator are:
Simple indicators are usually expressed in the form of absolute figures and are intended to provide a relatively unbiased description of a situation or process.
Performance indicators differ from simple indicators in that they imply a point of reference, for example, a standard, an objective, an assessment, or a comparator, and are therefore relative rather than absolute in character. Although a simple indicator is the more neutral of the two, it may become a performance indicator if a value judgement is involved.
The third category, general indicators, are in the main derived from outside the ‘institution and are not indicators in the strict sense – they are frequently opinions, survey findings or general statistics’


The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (undated) defines indicator as follows:

A statement in the Quality Code that reflects sound practice and through which providers can demonstrate that they are meeting the relevant Expectation.

associated issues

related areas

See also

performance indicators


Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 3 January 2017, not available 20 June 2019.

UNESCO and ACU-CHEMS, 2001, Accountability and International Cooperation in the Renewal of Higher Education, Paris, UNESCO, UNESCO Higher Education Indicators Study, available at accessed 1 September 2012, still available 20 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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