First choose your MBA ...

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The Independent Online
A new accreditation scheme to control the quality of MBA programmes has been under discussion for more than a year. When business schools were few in number, the employer grapevine kept organisations informed about those MBA courses which were considered useful. Although the criteria varied and the ratings were subjective, these informal opinions were fairly reliable. However, as the number of business schools offering MBAs grew, it became increasingly difficult for employers and prospective students to sort the gold from the dross.

Since the first business schools were established in the United States over a century ago, several magazines - including Fortune, Business Week and US News and World Report - have published surveys that rank the top 10 to 25 MBA programmes. But rankings based upon the subjective opinion of a sample of senior executives have a number of weaknesses.

Business leaders who are alumni of business schools tend to vote for their Alma Mater. This in turn favours the biggest and oldest business schools, which have the largest numbers of alumni. Moreover, because a school's ranking can affect both its student recruitment and the value of its consultancy assignments, public relations activity is intense and can affect the rankings.

MBA courses did not reach Britain until 1965 and in 1983 there were only 20. Growth has since been explosive, and well over 100 UK "business schools" of varying standards now offer MBAs. In Britain a more objective series of rating business schools was established by the Association of MBAs (Amba). This relied on the voluntary inspection and accreditation of individual MBA courses (not the business schools themselves) against strict criteria.

So far 33 of the UK's hundred or more business schools offering MBAs have had courses accredited. As the reputation of the scheme has grown, 15 business schools in France, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Italy have also sought and earned accreditation. Several more UK and European business schools are currently seeking accreditation for their programmes.

Each business school hoping for accreditation is visited by a team of up to six assessors. Once accredited, schools are inspected every seven years.

Amba requires a school to have its own identity and facilities within the institution of which it is a part. It must be autonomous. The faculty should have at least 40 staff, three-quarters of whom are dedicated to the business school itself, to ensure strength in depth and adequate student contact. The staff should also 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 school is also expected to invest in developing its staff.

Admission standards for students must be high, and based both on work experience and academic attainments. The student body must also be large enough to form an "intellectually critical mass".

The curriculum must provide students with a core knowledge of such business topics as finance, marketing, quantitative methods, human resource management, information systems, and strategy. These core subjects should be supported by a range of "electives". Examinations must be the main measure of attainment.

The Association of Business Schools (ABS), the trade body for 90 of Britain's MBA-awarding schools, has been having talks with Amba for more than a year to explore the possibility of setting up an alternative accreditation scheme.

The basis of the proposed alternative is that there should be two levels of accreditation: an upper tier of around 30 to 35 first-rate institutions which meet very demanding criteria, and what Jonathan Slack, Chief Executive of ABS, describes as "a threshold tier which meets nationally acceptable standards". He added that "there may be some programmes which do not meet the criteria".

It was suggested that ABS, representing the interests of its members, will be under pressure to include them all in the upper tier. Mr Slack agreed that this will be so, but added: "They've seen earlier drafts of the proposals, and they have endorsed the principle that there is a requirement for two tiers."

Mr Slack continued: "the precise detail has been worked on, to the point where we know we now have the final scheme". Details of the proposed scheme go out to ABS members this week and there will be a postal ballot on 1 February.

However, a senior Amba spokesman said that the scheme is "far from finalisation". As far as they are concerned "we're still talking and nothing has been finalised as yet". He said that a joint working party of the ABS and Amba had agreed to the principle that there should be only one scheme, but this could be either an Amba scheme or a joint scheme. He added: "My opinion is that we are just at the very start of things - and one option is that we go ahead on our own."

There have been suggestions that ABS, with only a third of its members having earned Amba accreditation, is putting pressure on Amba so that some form of accreditation can be extended to the majority of its members. However critics of the scheme are pointing out that, in the words of VS Gilbert, "When everyone is somebodee (sic), Then no one's anybody."

It is unlikely that there could ever be an "ideal" accreditation scheme, and the Amba scheme occasionally has a rigidity which fails to take exceptional circumstances into account. Amba criteria should certainly be constantly reviewed to take account of changes in the market. However, the Amba scheme is widely respected among employers, prospective students and many business schools at home and abroad. The standards it has set should not be diluted.

Some of the leading business schools have already expressed reservations over the proposed changes. They do not want to see standards eroded, and there are suggestions that if the proposed joint scheme accredits almost everybody, they may set up a scheme of their own.

Later this month the Association of Business Schools is launching a report, Pillars of the Economy: The Contribution of UK Business Schools to the Economy, showing that business schools collectively are among the UK's top 50 exporters.

Whichever accreditation scheme is finally adopted, it must remain credible, have the support of most business schools, maintain, if not improve on, existing standards, and be without ambiguityn