What benchmarking is and what it is not - Understanding a whole range of concepts and definitions linked to quality, benchmarking, accreditation

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
: metrics used to help an organization measure progress toward its goals

Standards: established norms or requirements

Benchmarks: (industry-wide) standards,usually showing the best performance possible at a certain time. Or: ‘Ameasured, "best-in-class" achievement; a reference or measurement standard for comparison; this performance level is recognised as the standard of excellence for a specific business process.’ (, accessed 2008-08-18)

Benchmarking: a process inside an organisation with the aim to improve its performance by learning about good practices for primary and/or support processes through looking at those processes in other, better-performing organizations, building on evaluation of relevant performances (if possible through measurement of Key Performance Indicators) in own and others’ organisations

One-to-one benchmarking: benchmarking with one ‘model’ organisation acting as the standard and one organisation learning how to emulate the other

Mutual/collaborative benchmarking: benchmarking among more than two organisations, in which many or ideally all partners act as models for others in some respects and as organisations learning to emulate others in other respects

Ranking: an ordering of entities (e.g.higher education institutions, schools, or study programmes) along a single dimension, such that each entity is placed higher than or lower than or (sometimes) at the same positions as other entities

Institutional Audit: an assessment (usually by external agents) of the processes and structures to maintain or enhance quality, usually with emphasis on the internal quality work rather than the actual ‘measurement’ of quality of education/research

Accreditation: quality assessment with an attached judgement that the evaluated unit (programme or organisation) is good enough to have the right to exist in a higher education system. Accreditation has official, often legal, consequences. One important consequence of this is that accreditation almost invariably proceeds from previously-published standards. Often, accreditation is given for a limited period of time (usually between 4 and 10 years) and is repeated in a cyclical process at the end of the period of validity.

Evaluation: making a judgement on quality. May be applied at many levels, e.g. student satisfaction judgements on a course module, or judgement of compliance to standards of a higher education institution. Used here as a very general, neutral term.

Quality: ‘The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs’ (ISO 8402:1994, later subsumed under ISO 9000). Inhigher education, quality is an inherently debated term, and different understandings exist, summarised by Harvey & Green (1993) as:

  • Quality as exceptional (‘excellence’)
  • Quality as perfection of consistency (‘zeroerrors’)
  • Quality as fitness for purpose (mission-based ‘do what you promise’, or ‘delight customers’)
  • Quality as value for money
  • Quality as transformation

Quality Control: internal or external quality assessment plus the processes and structures within the higher education institution to maintain quality as it is

Quality Assurance: the function of quality management to assure quality in the eyes of outside ‘stakeholders’ or ‘customers’

Quality Management: internal or external quality assessment plus the processes and structures within the higher education institution with systematic efforts at (continual) enhancement or improvement of quality. This is a task for the leadership structure of a higher education institution

Quality Assessment: synonym for quality control; assessment can take place within the institution (through regular monitoring or through once-in-a-period self evaluation) or come from external agents

TQM: ‘a management approach for an organization, centered on quality, based on the participation of all its members and aiming at long-term success through customer satisfaction, and benefits to all members of the organization and to society.’ (ISO 8402:1994, later subsumed under ISO 9000). TQM contains many different streams, varying from soft (focusing on involvement e.g. through quality circles) to hard(focusing on measurement of (key) performance indicators, reduction of variation and process control). Continuous quality improvement is one of the key aims introduced by the TQM movement.

ISO certification:  public statement by a certified auditor that an organisation lives up to the ISO standards. With regard to quality management, ISO 9000’s conception of quality is linked to ‘quality as perfection’ or ‘zero errors’ and demands adherence to explicitly described business processes

EFQM Excellence Model: ‘a framework for organisational management systems, promoted by the European Foundation forQuality Management (EFQM) and designed for helping organisations in their drive towards being more competitive’ (, accessed 2008-08-18)

: ‘a management approach aiming at improvements by means of elevating efficiency and effectiveness of the processes that exist within and across organizations. The key to BPR is for organizations to look at their business processes from a "clean slate" perspective and determine how they can best construct these processes to improve how they conduct business.’ (, accessed 2008-08-18)

Good/best practice: performance worthy of providing standards/benchmarks for others. ‘Best’ practice implies that a single ranking is possible and this practice is best for all. ‘Good’ practice follows from a contingency view: some practices may be best in some situations or for some other organisations, but not necessarily for all

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