Most universities and colleges recognise that management education and business consultancy commands high fees and so generates valuable revenues. Most, therefore, have established business schools. This is understandable when higher education is under pressure to increase its income from industry, overseas students and other sources.
Unfortunately, some schools are pitifully short of both facilities and expertise. For instance, the Association of MBAs (AMBA), which is concerned with quality issues and runs an accreditation scheme for MBA courses, argues that a faculty needs a minimum of about 40 staff to ensure strength in depth and adequate contact with students during their course. Some have less than half this number, and at least one has no professors, no staff with a PhD and only six with a Masters degree.
Employers know that MBAs have become highly variable and now discriminate between those of different schools. Faced with an MBA, their first question tends to be, "where from?". Some rate very highly, others not at all. As one headhunter said: "If you've an MBA from a duff school, it doesn't say much for your judgement as a manager - and judgement is the prime quality employers look for in managers. If you can't get a credible MBA, don't get one at all."
It would be unwise for employers, potential students or even headhunters to put too much faith in the grapevine as a source of reliable information about the quality of individual courses. Fortunately, objective assessments are readily available from both the AMBA and from the Higher Education Funding Councils.
Under the AMBA scheme, schools apply to have their courses accredited on a voluntary basis. Each is visited by a team of four to six assessors every seven years and must satisfy stringent criteria.
Staff must be "credible in terms of their academic qualifications, their ability to teach business at postgraduate level, the quality of their research and the extent of their business contacts and consultancy activities". The student body must be large and varied enough to form an "intellectually critical mass" and student admission standards must be high and based on work experience as well as academic criteria. Examinations must be the principal method of measuring attainment.
Among other factors considered are the composition of the school, its autonomy, the coverage of core subjects, the range of options offered and its investment in staff development.
It should be noted that it is the course, not the school, that is accredited. A school that runs several courses - such as full-time, part-time, modular and distance-learning - may have some accredited but not others.
So far, courses at 32 UK business schools, 12 in mainland Europe and 14 in the US have been accredited by the AMBA. Some schools that have not sought accreditation for their courses may be excellent, but the process provides a widely accepted assurance of quality for employers and prospective students.
Teaching standards in the main departments of all universities, including business schools, are assessed every five years by the Higher Education Funding Councils. Each department is graded as excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory and a report comments on what the assessors like and dislike.
Research standards, too, are assessed by the HEFCs. Business and management studies departments are rated on a points scale ranging from a "5" - which indicates "some research of international excellence with the rest of national excellence" - through to a "1", which indicates "research of national excellence in none, or virtually none, of the areas". A second scale reflects staff participation in the research - from "A", indicating 95 to 100 per cent participation, to "F", indicating less than 20 per cent.
It is argued by some that the quality of teaching, especially postgraduate teaching, is linked to the quality of research being undertaken. This is not proven. Some schools accredited by the AMBA and assessed as having excellent teaching standards by the HEFCs - such as the London Business School, UMIST and Lancaster and Warwick Universities - have the highest research ratings. Other "excellent" schools, such as Cranfield, rate only average for research.
Most employers of MBAs are multinationals or companies with big operations overseas. Those choosing an MBA course should therefore look at its international image.
Most schools now attract some overseas students. This does not in itself give a school any claims to being international. Indeed, it has been suggested that if a class has too many overseas students, valuable learning time is lost while they overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers. Student exchanges with business schools abroad, formal language teaching within the course, and the number of a school's MBAs who secure employment with multinationals and foreign companies could be better indicators of international credentials.
Some schools now offer joint MBA programmes. For example, Strathclyde has a joint course with Groupe ESC Toulouse (Toulouse Graduate Business School) in France, where the first six months are spent at Strathclyde working in English and the second six months at Toulouse working in French.
Some MBAs are geared to the needs of a specific company. As the careers of most managers are likely to involve changes of employer, prospective students should be cautious about choosing these MBAs. They are not readily transferable.
MBA study is intensive and costly but a good investment. A fifth of all AMBA members (average age 29) are board members. Moreover, more than half of Ashridge Management College's MBAs reach chief executive or main board level within five years of finishing their course; a third do so within three years.
q The AMBA provides a postal and telephone enquiry service for prospective MBA students. It also produces a detailed MBA handbook, "Guide to Business Schools", available from the AMBA, 15 Duncan Terrace, London Nl 8BZReuse content