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


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core definition

Standard is both:

1. a fixed criterion against which an outcome can be compared

2 a level of attainment.

explanatory context

The first definition of standards is similar to benchmark.


The second definition of standards relate to outcomes of education, be it the achievements of students or the service provision.


Standards as outcomes contrasts with quality, which refers to the educational process. It is a moot point whether the quality of the educational process can be 'measured' by the standard of coutcomes. External stakeholders, such as governments and employers, tend to take the simplistic view that educational outcomes equate with quality of provision. Ranking, which measure outputs (if they measure anything worthwhile) are supposedly indicative of standards but have little regard for the quality of the educational process.

Speaking at a House of Commons seminar (HEPI/JISC2010), Peter Williams previous head of the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education stated that standards and quality are different. He said:

When I talk about good quality of higher education, I shall mean courses which have a clearly defined purpose, which are specifically designed to meet that purpose, which conform to the requirements of the National Qualifications Framework for Higher Education, which are delivered using pedagogical techniques that are fit for purpose and regularly checked for effectiveness, and in which students are assessed against national expectations using assessment methods that will measure reliably what they are intended to measure. I think it’s very important that we don’t just use ‘quality’ in a general way if we’re going to expect it to have specific significance and specific outcomes.

When I say ‘standards’, I am going to mean explicit and predetermined levels of knowledge, understanding and skill that are required to be demonstrated before a degree is awarded, and which meet the expectations of the National Academic Infrastructure. (If you don’t know what the National Academic Infrastructure is, then you ought to, and you’d better see me afterwards.)



Standards should also not be confused with 'quality standards', which are norms, expectations or specifications (and are similar to benchmarks, although benchmarks may be more precisely specified than quality standards).


A golf analogy helps differentiate standards, quality and quality standards.

A quality standard is a fixed criterion, that specifies implicit or explicit expectations or norms. In golf, each course has a par score for each hole, which is the number of strokes that an accomplished player would be expected to take in normal conditions (in this analogy, the quality standard could also be described as a benchmark).

The actual score acheived by a player is equivalent to the standard of achivement, which may be more or less than the par score (quality standard) depending on the climatic conditions.

The standard is distinct from (although not entirely independent of) the quality of the play. A golfer may make excellent shots but is unlucky with the lie of the ball or is faced by very bad weather and so may not score well. Conversely, some poor quality play may result in lucky breaks and a good score. (Harvey, 2006)

analytical review

Sadler (1987, p. 194) defined standards in higher education as:

a definite level of excellence or attainment or the recognised measure of what is adequate for some purpose, established by authority, custom or consensus.


Harvey (2006) states:

‘Standards’ are specified and usually measurable outcome indicators that are used for comparative purposes. The term standard is complicated because it means both a fixed criterion (against which an outcome can be matched) and a level of attainment.

Harvey identifies four broad areas in higher education where standards are set and assessed: academic standards, standards of competence, service standards and organisational standards. These are reproduced in Vlãsceanu et al., (2007, p. 91) although none of the original sources (such as Harvey, 1999) are cited.

Wojtczak (2002) states:

Standard: Refers to a model, example or rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality, established by authority, custom or general consent. It is also defined as a criterion, gauge or yardstick by which judgments or decisions may be made. A meaningful standard should offer a realistic prospect of determining whether or not one actually meets it. Standards may be mandatory (required by law), voluntary (established by private and professional organizations and available for use), or de facto (generally accepted by custom or convention, such as standards of dress, manners, or behavior).

Standard in Education: A model design or formulation related to various aspects of medical education and presented in a manner that enables the assessment of graduates' performance in compliance with generally accepted professional requirements. They are set up by consent of experts or by decision of educational authority.

Wojtczak identifies three types of interrelated educational standards: content standards or curriculum standards, performance or assessment standards, process or opportunity-to-learn standards. Wojtczak also asserts that a standard can be also classified four ways: an absolute standard, a relative standard a norm-referenced standard, a criterion-referenced standard.

AUQA (2010, p. 93) defines a standard very generally:

an agreed specification or other criterion used as a rule, guideline, or definition of a level of performance or achievement.

McBrien & Brandt (1997, p. 93) define standards as follows:

Standards are statements of what students should know and be able to do.

Georgia Department of Education (2009, p. 3) defines standards in relation to student achievement (both academic and competence):

Standards are statements that define what students should know and be able to do upon completion of specific levels of instruction as well as how they will respond to their environment. Standards serve as a guide for excellence and are differentiated from minimum competencies or outcomes because they describe the challenging goals for expanding and improving education.

Council For Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA, 2001), defined standards in relation to institutional achievement:

Standards: The level of requirements and conditions that must be met by institutions or programs to be accredited or certified by a quality assurance or accrediting agency. These conditions involve expectations about quality, attainment, effectiveness, financial viability, outcomes, and sustainability.

The International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE, 2001, p. 3) defines standards as follows:

Standards are seen as the expected outcomes of the educational training. It concerns the knowledge, skills, attitudes (= competencies) that are expected from the graduates. This concerns both general standards (qualifications for a Bachelor and Master) and specific subject standards. .

Fraser (1994, pp. 1–034 ) defines standards as follows:

Standards. These are statements defining the threshold that must be reached before programmes can be offered or qualifications can be awarded. For a specified level, standards may be statements about: (i) goals, that is the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitude it is intended that students should attain: and/or (ii) facilities, that is the staff, buildings, libraries equipment available to assist students toward reaching the goals: and/or (iii) achievements, that is the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes actually attained by successful graduates. In some countries, such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom, this last aspect (i.e. what students know and can do, and not where or how they learnt what they know and can do), is becoming increasingly important as an indication of quality. This is especially true for vocational higher education. In some subject areas it is the students’ competences, i.e. the way they use knowledge and skills to perform successfully in the workplace, which counts. At the research level, the standards of a department or institution also be related to its facilities and, more importantly, to its achievements. In most countries, the latter is measured to some extent by the quantity, depth, stimulation and actual or potential utility of the new knowledge and ideas generated.


Mueller (2011), states:

Standard: Much like a goal or objective, a standard is a statement of what students should know or be able to do. I distinguish between a standard and these other goal statements by indicating that a standard is broader than an objective, but more narrow than a goal. Like an objective and unlike a goal, a standard is amenable to assessment, that is, it is observable and measurable.

associated issues

Relationship between standards and quality

Here is a table that outlines the relationship between standards and quality, along with an indication of the the external assurance and standards checking processes that are used.


Standards have somerimes been described as 'objective' or 'subjective'. Thus objective standardsare those used as an organising concept to denote a fixed level of performance, related to a specific outcome. For example: standards can be seen as a benchmark, a norm of quality and efficiency expected; equally, standards can be seen as a condition of excellence, in the way that degrees are seen as the standard expected of graduates; standards can conversely be seen as a minimum or floor, below which student performance should not fall, and the point at which remedial action should begin; more broadly (but equally objectively) a standard can be interpreted as a vision or direction for an educational system, to which government or management can strive or plan. Alternatively, a subjective view suggests that standards are not always seen as unproblematic and fixed. For instance, once it is accepted that standards can change over time a new set of definitional problems emerges. If we use the language of ‘falling standards’, does this mean that fewer candidates are reaching a standard demanded; for example, that the number of new recruits with certain ‘key skills’ at first employment is declining? Or does it mean that the standard now seen as acceptable to warrant a degree or diploma is lower than it has been in the past, with certain practices going unpunished? For others there has to be a behavioural perspective to any educational endeavour: for some, standards are not only a measure of performance, but incorporate notions of moral and social behaviour.

related areas

See also

absolute standards

academic standards



content standards

criteria-referenced assessment

external examiner


norm-referenced assessment

organisational standards

performance standards

process standards


quality standard

relative standards

service standards

standards of competence

standards monitoring


Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA), 2010, AUQA Audit Manual, Version 7.1. Melbourne, Australian Universities Quality Agency.

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.

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).

Georgia Department of Education, 2009, Georgia Performance Standards, Theatre Arts Education 18 June 2009, available at, accessed 20 September 2012, still available 11 January 2017.

Harvey, L., 1999, 'Quality in higher education', paper at the Swedish Quality Conference, Göteborg, November 1999, available here.

Harvey, L., 2006, 'Understanding quality', Section B 4.1-1 of ' Introducing Bologna objectives and tools' in Purser, L. (Ed.) EUA Bologna Handbook: Making Bologna work, Brussels European University Association and Berlin, Raabe. A final draft of the paper can be viewed here as a pdf.

Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), 2010, House of Commons Seminar: 27th January, 2010 Quality and Standards, available at, accessed 23 July 2012, not available 10 Se ptember 2012.

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.

McBrien, J.L. and Brandt, R.S. 1997, The Language of Learning: A Guide to Education Terms, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Mueller, J., 2016, Authentic Assessment Toolbox; Glossary at, accessed 4 January 2017, still available 11 January 2017.

Sadler, R., 1987, 'Specifying and promulgating achievement standards',Oxford Review of Education, 13, pp. 191–209.

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 2004–2017

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