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Term Definition

Statements regarding an expected level of requirements and conditions against which quality is assessed or that must be attained by higher education institutions and their programmes in order for them to be accredited or certified. Standards may take a quantitative form, being mostly the results of benchmarking, or they may be qualitative, indicating only specific targets (e.g., educational effectiveness, sustainability, core commitments, etc.). When quantitative, the standards include threshold levels that have to be met in order for higher education institutions or programmes to be accredited. More often than not, the thresholds are defined at the level of minimally acceptable quality. 

On other occasions, the standards refer to the highest level of quality, thus being considered as “standards of excellence”. These may result from a benchmarking exercise or be asserted implicitly, being so recognized by the peers in a collegiate way. Standards may have different reference points: (i) inputs [e.g., content standards]; (ii) outputs [e.g., performance standards], (iii) processes. Standards can be general (for a degree level, e.g., a Bachelor’s or a Master’s Degree) or subject-specific (e.g., discipline benchmarking statements). Standards may also vary by different types of standard setting methods (such as criterion-referenced, minimal competency, or objective setting methods). In order to judge properly whether or not a particular standard/threshold level of quality is met or not, it has to be formulated clearly and explicitly and related to specific criteria which can be further divided into (more operational) indicators.

Standards are thus related to a specific culture of evidence. In the context of the growing diversity of higher education, the translation of academic quality into standards and indicators has become complex. Often, a more dynamic approach to defining and assessing standards is visible (a mixture of reality-based components and potentiality- focused ones). The challenge is threefold: (i) to diminish the number of reference standards; (ii) to relate them to appropriate performance indicators while also making use of specific criteria within a consistent culture of evidence; and (iii) to provide for sufficient flexibility in the formulation of standards in order to allow for innovative academic developments. Standards are often used synonymously with criteria, as in the United States, while in Europe, standards are becoming increasingly distinct from criteria.

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