It's easy to think of accreditation as a rather dry process of inspecting and box ticking, but there's much more than it to that, says Martyn Jones, director of Aberystwyth Business School, and a regular member of the Association of MBAs (AMBA) accreditation panels. AMBA approval is thorough, taking up to five years and dictating minimum standards for a wide range of factors, including high admissions criteria for students, a large and varied cohort, a wide curriculum, a sizeable faculty with credible lecturers with good teaching and research profiles, adequate study facilities, and a host of other factors, including the extent to which student feedback is taken into account in course design and improvement.
But the crux of the process is the two-day visit to the school, when the members of the five-strong accreditation team get a real chance to look at the set-up from the students' perspective, says Jones: "We owe it to them to ensure that a particular programme is properly benchmarked, and although I know how frustrating it is dealing with issues like funding and hiring good faculty, students are not interested in things like that. What they're concerned with is what they're getting in the classroom and the quality of their assignments."
Although the panel also meets with all the staff of a school at least once, along with the vice chancellor or president of the university, hearing students' views is equally important, he insists. "We always have lunch with the students without the staff present, and my first question is simply, 'What do you think about the programme?' It's extremely useful to hear their answers."
The panel also looks at the minutes of the teaching committees to track the actions on things students want changed. "We want to make sure these are being acted on," says Jones. "It's a quality audit trail."
But he emphasises that accreditation is not just about judging a school worthy of the association's own kitemark. "We always have a session at the end for the exchange of ideas, news and thoughts. All the faculty come along and it's always a fantastic session. And they get a chance to ask questions of us."
Indeed, accreditation is not about applying a template to an MBA course, but guaranteeing there is a certain form and content of provision, he says: "Beyond that, we want schools to innovative and free to change and add value, and not just replicate what everyone else is doing. It's a process, not just an event, and less an inspection but a real exchange of ideas and vigour and energy. The dean of the last school I went to said he had no idea that the process of accreditation would add such value."
And he has found the school visits have challenged his own understanding of MBA courses: "I'm seeing examples of real innovation and flexibility in terms of course design, for instance, and some exciting alliances that are going on now between schools. You pick up on the ideas of one school and not only take them on the next visit, but back home with you too."Reuse content