Formal accreditation by an internationally recognised body is the gold standard for MBA courses. Without it, however good they are, they remain, essentially, low key and local. With it, they attract wider attention, win the confidence of students, and can take their place in a global galaxy of externally-approved courses.
What accreditation means is that a rigorous external eye has been passed over standards of teaching, research, facilities and programmes. For students, who may well be applying sight-unseen to a school possibly many hundreds or even thousands of miles away, it offers some guarantee that the course does what its promotional literature says that it does. And for institutions it means a chance to measure themselves against the best in the world.
The UK-based Association of MBAs has been accrediting courses since the 1980s and now accredits 139 business schools in 66 countries, with new ones passing scrutiny all the time. This year it has accredited programmes in Sao Paulo and Mexico City, as well as across Europe in France, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, the Ukraine, and particularly in Russia, where management education is booming and a new £350m superschool is being developed outside St Petersburg.
Closer to home, four new UK schools have won AMBA accreditation in recent months, and all are very glad to be there.
Portsmouth Business School's MBA has been running since 1988, and before that the university offered a postgraduate diploma in management studies, so it is an institution with long-standing experience of management education. Even so, the school knows that having AMBA accreditation, which it won earlier this year, will make it much more able to compete with other business schools in the region as well as to consolidate its reputation abroad, and it is now working to increase numbers on both the full-time and part-time programmes with active outreach to students overseas, as well as to local companies.
Alan Gilbert, course manager of the MBA executive programme, says students are already willing to travel some distance to take up the course. "We draw students from Poole, London and High Wycombe onto our part-time executive MBA but we've probably lost two or three students a year to other schools in the region, like Kingston, because of not having accreditation. However, that's now changing."
The part-time course attracts a number of participants from the public sector, including health and emergency services managers, but knows it needs to convince more local companies of the advantage to their own organizational development of having their employees take an MBA. At present, too many businesses tend to assume it will just lead to their best people leaving.
On the full-time programme, students come from all over the world, including Iceland, France, Spain and Chile. Local ship-building and Navy connections also mean close links with the Middle East.
Both courses apply an integrated and developmental approach to management skills, ensuring that the core skills which students acquire are applied in real-life situations. A major feature of both courses is the group consulting assignments that all students take part in, helping companies, public institutions and charities address management challenges and develop new directions. Students have worked with a local radio station, and a hospital, as well as with small and medium-sized companies. "We see developing your consulting skills as a part of being an excellent manager," says Gilbert.
The courses also offer, instead of the usual module options, a series of six-hour master-class sessions. Students have to choose eight, and write reflective learning logs about their experience, and also a 3,000-word assignment drawing on knowledge gained from at least two of the offered areas.
All students also go to Maastricht, for a residential session looking at issues of European business and the European Union. Other areas of expertise on the staff include international management, risk and crisis management, and workplace bullying and stress.
The business school enjoys a new purpose-built £12m site, and through the university students are offered use of the new library facilities and wide-ranging learner support. Yet fees, the school, points out, remain reasonable, with the executive programme costing £9,500, and the international MBA £10,900.
Superintendent Paul Morrison of the Sussex Police says that doing an MBA at Portsmouth helped him improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of his department. He also got promoted while doing it. "The MBA questions assumptions and expects you to be able to use facts and research to show why you think A might lead to B. This greater depth brings understanding rather than acceptance of issues at face value alone."
At present, Sheffield only offers a full-time MBA, but is planning to add a part-time executive programme to its stable next year. Management education has been on offer at the university since the 1950s, but MBA accreditation has only been sought recently, following considerable changes in the management school over the past three or four years. There are many new appointments now in place under the dean, Professor Keith Glaister, a leading expert in strategic management.
"Sheffield has always attracted large numbers of students," says Geoffrey Wood, MBA director, "but AMBA gives us the hallmark of quality. It only took us about six months to get accredited, because we already adhered very closely to AMBA standards. All they wanted from us was for us to flag up the MBA as the leading programme in the business school, to disband the teaching of operations management and to expand the number of optional modules."
The programme attracts many students from around the world, including Latin America and India, and overseas students make up 90 per cent of all students.
Sheffield and its region offers students the chance to study a vibrant, post-industrial economy, "but, first of all, we offer a good, general education in management," says Wood. "Lots of MBA programmes don't do that. Also, the calibre of our research is very high. Students get a lot of both the latest theoretical and applied knowledge, and they get it first hand, not second or third hand. Also, they have to roll up their sleeves and engage with the world. In two modules they work with local businesses."
Historically, Sheffield has been known for its expertise in critical accounting and in human resources, and these remain strengths. The business school also has strong links with the affiliated Institute of Work Psychology. But a new professor in entrepreneurship has increased strength in that field, and a young, strong finance team is raising the profile there.
Fees stand at £10,300 for EU students and £14,700 for non-EU students, but for this students also get access to all the computing, sporting and library facilities of one of the UK's Top 10 universities.
AMBA accreditation means Sheffield is already starting to raise its game. "Yesterday we asked all our new MBA students how many of them were influenced by our AMBA accreditation to come here and 25 per cent said they were," says Wood.
P. Sri Rathan Rathi, a banker in Dubai, describes doing the Sheffield MBA as the most memorable period of his life. "It gave me the feeling of being part of a truly international MBA experience – 72 students from 30 plus countries, each with an average of six years' work experience from diverse fields," he says. "It provided the opportunity and support for me to groom myself to become a global manager prepared to take on any challenge in any industry."
Do a Swansea MBA, says Mark Goode, director of the executive programme, and you're likely to get great value for money.
He points out that both the full-time and the executive programmes offered by Swansea University's School of Business and Economics offer rigorous and up-to-date courses, in small classes, for reasonable fees, unlike other programmes in the region where students can find themselves lost among hundreds of their peers. In addition, Swansea's executive programme is the only part-time accredited MBA in Wales.
On this two-year programme, most students are working full-time and come to the university to study over the course of long weekends, once a month, with first and second year students at the university on different weekends. "Our students might very easily be sent to China for two months, and miss, say, the managing markets weekend, but this allows them the flexibility to catch up."
The course is relatively new. In its first year it had six students, and it now has 11, but the school is advertising heavily locally, and offering additional perks such as £500 worth of free books, and free parking at the university at weekends to spread the word.
"There doesn't seem to be any lack of interest, the problems come when people have to find funding," says Goode. "We have 10 to 12 students waiting to do it, who haven't got the funding at the moment, but say they will come in two years' time." This despite the fact that, at £9,950, the MBA comes in well below the fees charged by many other business schools.
The one-year, full-time programme has a cohort of just under 40 this year, 90 per cent of them overseas students coming from more than a dozen countries, including China, Sweden and South America. Students study modules such as managing markets, managing people, managing processes and managing finance.
They study case studies and do strategic case analysis, and choose from electives that cover subjects such as globalisation, leadership and international marketing. A second part of the course asks that students undertake a substantial piece of project work and turn in a 15,000 word report. Costs are £10,500 for EU students, and £10,870 for overseas students.
To get AMBA accreditation only small tweakings were needed, including increasing the number of contact teaching hours students were given.
The business school makes the most of its setting, offering students an adventure weekend as part of the induction activities and promoting its seaside location. "My office is five minutes from the beach, and how many academics can say that?" says Goode. "I'd say to anyone wanting to come here that they will be taught by world class experts. It's an amazing area, and it's very good value for money."
Former student Qingyun Ma certainly found it so. An experienced manager, she took the MBA to improve her job prospects in China's dynamic economy, but has been snapped up by the Welsh Government to develop links between Wales and the Chongqing region of south west China.
"The friendly and open-minded team fostered a free-thinking learning atmosphere, and the respect for students' opinions definitely developed our confidence," she says. "Doing the MBA at Swansea University has been a turning point in my career."
Surrey University's School of Management is the place to go if you want to do an MBA that focuses on up-to-date theory and research. The school is proud that every module it offers is headed by a professor, and that students get a learning experience of real academic rigour.
This is something AMBA inspectors were very complimentary about, says Sonia el Kahal Maclean, MBA director. "They thought this a very good idea and meant that students could have confidence that they were going to get quality teaching. It is something that is unlike other universities, but we believe that if you are a practitioner, and you only get teaching from other practitioners, then you are being taught by people who are only really just one jump ahead. And all our faculty members have plenty of experience in industry and as consultants, so our students get all the practical experience and teaching as well."
Another difference is that part-time students, who do their MBA over two years, come to the university either two evenings a week, or every Saturday during term-time.
"We feel that if you do a weekend every month, as many part-time students do, then it is really more like distance learning," says el Kahal Maclean. "Our students come to the university every week and feel part of things, with lots of teaching time and support." All students, whether full- or part-time, meet together for a residential weekend – this year focusing on leadership – and visit Reims University to study issues of global business. All students also do an action learning project, in teams of five, working with local businesses or non-profit agencies, "and they always get something out of their comfort zone," says el Kalil McClean. "We want to stretch them."
Surrey University, based at Guildford, is well-known as a technological and scientific university, with a high profile in specialist areas such as leisure and tourism. To capitalize on this, the school will, from next autumn, be offering specialist full-time MBAs in retail, tourism and hospitality. Students will take some core programmes alongside mainstream MBA students, with specialist options. Interest in the hospitality programme is already being shown from areas of high tourism, such as Thailand.
Full-time MBA students come to Guildford from all parts of the world, although the proportion of overseas students varies. Last year it was two-thirds of the 25 students on the programme, this year all but one of the 13 students enrolled so far are from abroad. Forty one students are taking the part-time programmes – numbers have shot up since the AMBA accreditation. Both courses cost £15,950.
"I was attracted by the group work," says Matthew Read, an accounts manager with an air-conditioning company, who has just started as a part-time student. "And a colleague who has just finished recommended it to me."
For Corinna Heipcke, who works as a placement officer at the University of Roehampton, and who is in her second year, the programme was an obvious choice as she used to work at Surrey University. "I knew it was very reputable, and I have found it very good. My background is in modern languages, so everything I have been learning is very exciting and new."