Business students are spoiled for choice

If you want to select the MBA course that's right for you, make sure you do your research, says Kathy Harvey
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The Independent Online

There is no shortage of choice for anyone thinking of studying for an MBA. More than 100 business schools offer the programme in the UK alone - with fees ranging from less than £10,000 to more than £30,000 at the very top end of the market. But with so many courses and such a wide variation in costs, how can you tell if you are investing your time and money in a worthwhile qualification?

There is no shortage of choice for anyone thinking of studying for an MBA. More than 100 business schools offer the programme in the UK alone - with fees ranging from less than £10,000 to more than £30,000 at the very top end of the market. But with so many courses and such a wide variation in costs, how can you tell if you are investing your time and money in a worthwhile qualification?

The last few years have seen an increase in the number of commercially produced business school rankings - such as those in the Financial Times and the US-based Business Week magazine. But, although their influence is growing, they all use different criteria to judge a business school's success and tend to concentrate on a relatively small section of 100 schools around the world. This is all very well if you can afford to consider somewhere like Harvard in the United States or INSEAD in France, but less helpful if you are trying to judge between several less well-known MBA programmes which all seem to promise the same things in their brochures.

This where accreditation from independent bodies can help students to narrow down the choice. The UK-based Association of MBAs, one of three main accrediting organisations (the other two are based in Brussels and the United States), accredits MBAs at 86 business schools worldwide. More than two-thirds of UK business schools are not the list, either because they fail to meet the criteria or have chosen not to seek the association's approval.

The Association of MBAs' director of accreditation services, Robert Owen, is unapologetic about the way standards are assessed. "There may be courses which have a very small number of students, or business schools which are seeking to serve a niche market," he says, "but we believe it is important to provide guidelines for applicants who are looking for an exacting and broad-based management education."

In order to gain accredited status, an MBA programme has to fulfil minimum standards for a wide range of factors. These include high admission standards, a large and varied student group and teaching staff with good research and teaching profiles. "The main factors we are looking at are the faculty and the students," says Owen. "It's important that faculty members are active in research. We also think it is valuable for students to have a few years' work experience before they study for an MBA."

Schools are allowed to admit some students with less than three years' experience of work, but they must be a small minority. The Association also looks for evidence that the business school is avoiding the temptation to fill its course with too many applicants from one country or industry. While the chance to learn from managers from other cultures is a considered one of the big pluses of a good MBA course, the benefits can disappear if one nationality dominates.

The accreditation process includes a two-day visit by a panel of experts, designed to check that the promises made on paper and in the MBA prospectus are being kept in practice. Academics from other institutions take part and talk to current students as well as lecturers. Facilities, from the library to the standard of the IT equipment, are also checked.

Professor Andrew Lock, the Dean of Leeds University Management School, has carried out inspections for the Association and has just had his own department's MBA programmes reassessed. "Accreditation benefits students and faculty," he says. "When outsiders take a look at an institution, they can help to stimulate discussion and develop ideas for improvement. But accreditation also gives applicants reassurance, and helps them to make informed decisions."

Professor Lock points out that official government teaching and research assessment tables also offer an indication of quality. But MBA students are not only interested in academic excellence. Lecturers with international experience of business and ongoing relationships with the real world of work are important, and MBA directors stress that student groups can learn as much from each other as they can from the academic team - making the profile of the student group an important consideration. And if you invest £20,000, you probably won't be impressed if you discover there are no facilities to plug in a laptop during lectures.

Business schools also realise that accreditation bolsters their reputation abroad. Leeds University Management School attracts a lot of students from the Indian sub-continent, where internationally recognised accreditation is seen as very important.

Most applicants admit that accreditation is only one factor in their decision-making process. No system is foolproof and the Association of MBAs advises anyone serious about studying for an MBA to visit all the schools on their shortlist and speak to graduates in order to gain a realistic and up-to-date picture of the programme. Standards can change within a few years and, in the past, the Association has taken a small number of UK MBA programmes off its accredited list after finding they no longer fulfilled the criteria. "Most are extremely keen to stay within the system," says Robert Owen. "Accredited status has to be re-confirmed every five years but we are increasingly re-visiting schools within a three-year period. If we hear concerns from former students about a particular school, we will certainly look again at things. The important thing to remember is that accreditation is a safety net for students - it's a form of consumer protection - and most schools want to maintain their standards."

The days are gone when the letters MBA after your name turned you into a member of a small, elite club. Last year more than 11,000 newly minted MBA graduates left business schools in the UK. With competition for the top jobs still very fierce, employers will be looking for more ways to distinguish between candidates. A qualification from an accredited school with a good reputation is one way of improving your chances of making the most of the MBA investment.

CHECKLIST FOR YOUR PERFECT MBA

* Check rankings but ask whether or not their criteria are important for you. Is salary increase after graduation a big factor? Are you looking for a school with a global reputation or a good regional school with a high standard of teaching and good facilities?

* Accreditation is a safeguard but if you are interested in a non-accredited course, ask the right questions. Programmes can not be accredited until they have graduated three cohorts of students. Courses with fewer than 20 students may not qualify for accreditation.

* Make sure you visit the schools on your list and speak to current students or recent graduates.

* Think one step ahead. Ask potential future employers if they have heard of the business school and if they have employed its MBA graduates.

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