A degree above the competition

Accreditation enables graduates as well as business schools to stand out in a highly competitive market
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The Independent Online

With business schools proliferating around the country, it pays to choose programmes accredited by the Association of MBAs (Amba). Students can then be sure they are high-quality courses assessed by senior academics from other business schools, says Robert Owen, the association's accreditation manager. "There are now, throughout the world, quite a number of non-accredited programmes which are of really poor quality."

Anthony Daly, a manager for London Underground, has just begun a two-year part-time MBA at Brunel University, whose business school won Association accreditation earlier this year. His MBA will be funded by London Underground in an effort to prepare managers for the enormous changes ahead as London Underground moves into a new alliance with the private sector.

Daly is not only confident that Brunel is offering the course he needs in terms of studying asset and information management, but its accreditation played a big part in his decision. "In today's society, you think about how the job market is changing and you have to have an academic qualification to see you through. Being realistic, an academic qualification isn't worth a great deal unless it's got something to back it up – like an accreditation system," he says.

Brunel launched its MBA programme in 1996 and, after several years of low student numbers, gained accreditation in March this year. Professor David Sims, head of the school of business and management, says that, right from the start, the MBA programme was designed with a view to meeting the Amba criteria.

"Without accreditation, it was more difficult for us to recruit students," Professor Sims says. "Some of them liked what we were offering and enrolled because they knew we were applying for accreditation, but others said their employers would only consider accredited programmes and walked away."

From 30 students in previous years, this year's MBA programme at Brunel is up to 50. "We put quite a lot of that down to accreditation," Professor Sims says. "Our existing students are delighted, because it will help them, too. Accreditation gives us a big step up into a new league and opens up all sorts of new opportunities to develop what we're doing on a bigger platform."

The Association of MBAs was founded in the early Eighties and introduced its formal accreditation system in the early Nineties – a system that is continually being reassessed and improved. It now has 60 accredited member schools: in the UK, western Europe, Russia and Latin America and demand is growing in Canada and New Zealand. Thirty-five of these are UK schools, out of a total of 120 MBA schools in the UK. But these 35 account for 65 to 70 per cent of the MBA student intake in this country because many programmes have a tiny number of students.

Schools increasingly want to distinguish themselves in the marketplace by seeking accreditation, says Robert Owen at the Association of MBAs. But this does not mean that the remaining 85 schools in the UK are necessarily all bad. "Our accreditation system is market driven," he explains. "It's up to schools to approach us, and there are good schools out there which we would like to come forward."

In general, the Association advises students who do not live within reach of an accredited school to consider doing their MBA by distance learning. The Open University has an excellent accredited programme which accounts for around 25 per cent of all MBAs in the UK. But there could be cases where a student's aims in doing an MBA – for instance, to run a family business – could be served by a non-accredited school. Students should always look at faculty lists to check staff qualifications and the kind of industrial or commercial experience the staff have, Owen advises. They should also avoid MBA programmes filled with fresh graduates. "We believe very strongly that MBAs should be post-graduate and post-experience, so that students can discuss business issues with people who have business experience."

The Amba accreditation process is rigorous. Applicants are asked to prepare a fairly extensive self-audit document, on the basis of which the Association decides whether to carry out a full assessment. Several schools are weeded out at this stage; the others go forward for a one- to two-day assessment by Association officials and senior academics.

A school which gains accreditation can guarantee its students a well-managed programme, a high-quality faculty, a sound curriculum and able students, good resources and a healthy alumni association. The school can also take advantage of the international club that the Association is building, joining its networks of business school deans, directors and graduates.

Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics gained accreditation for its MBA programme in June this year, and is now the second school in Moscow to have done so. "What we find in Russia is that a lot of students are working for multinational companies and they want their MBA to be of equivalent status to that of their colleagues overseas," Owen says. "Moscow is keen to be part of the MBA world, and there is a great deal of enthusiasm there."

Pauline Weight, director of the full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management, says Amba accreditation is "a very valuable entry point" for schools, although, as membership grows, "not enough in itself to mark you out as a top school".