To avoid being sold bogus educational qualifications, take time to understand the accreditation systems.

Selecting the right MBA course from the multitude now on offer is made all the more fraught for prospective students by the fact that not all MBA courses are what they seem. As a recent BBC London investigation proved, there are some fraudulent institutions out there offering educational qualifications which are entirely bogus. MBA courses are particularly vulnerable to this type of fraud because MBAs do not have to be accredited and any college may teach them. “There is definitely a problem there,” says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, who took part in the BBC programme. “We do come across organisations that make spurious claims about the quality standards they have met. It’s also possible for organisations to give misleading information – for instance, giving the impression that they are accredited when they are not.”

This kind of malpractice has always existed, she says, and today’s students are generally better at finding good institutions because they can research them on the internet. “But my advice to prospective students is, don’t rely on an internet search, because of the ways in which information can be misrepresented,” says Jeanette Purcell. “Talk to people who’ve been to the business school, go yourself if you can. See what accreditation they have and check it out with the accreditation body. Even if an organisation doesn’t have accreditation – and there are reputable schools that don’t – we would be able to tell you whether or not it’s a scam.”

Getting your head around accreditation can be another source of complication for MBA students, in that there are three separate accreditation systems. AMBA (the Association of MBAs) focuses on the MBA programme rather than the business school as a whole, and currently accredits 143 programmes worldwide, the majority in the UK. Demand for this accreditation is growing in China and India, and last month Mannheim became the first Germanbusiness school to receive it. Not all applicants meet the fairly stringent criteria, which include accepting on courses only those students who have at least three years’ business experience.

EQUIS (the European Quality Improvement System) is awarded by the European Foundation for Management Development, which accredits 100 schools in 31 countries, including outsideEurope. It measures a school particularly on its internationalisation and its balance between high academic standards and business relevance.

AACSB (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) is principally a North American accreditation outfit, but increasing numbers of schools outside the US now seek this in their efforts to attract US students. The accreditation looks for high standards in managing resources and cultivating good staff-student relationships. “The three accreditation systems can be confusing,” agrees Kai Peters, CEO at Ashridge Business School, one of only 29 schools worldwide to be accredited by all three. “But if you’re considering investing up to £40,000, it’s worth spending 20 minutes Googling to find out what they all mean.

The further away you’re going and the less you know about that particular market, the more careful you have to be.” Professor Stefan Szymanski, director of MBA programmes at Cass Business School in London, thinks an element of competition in the accreditation process is healthy, ensuring that neither schools nor accreditation agencies are tempted to manipulate data. “It means that students get the sense that more than one perspective is being brought to bear,” he says. “Students like to see as many accreditations as possible, and some people now argue that the triple award – which Cass is in the process of applying for – is the gold standard.”

Accreditation is not the only way in which schools may seek to boost their reputation. In this country, the QuBE quality initiative, led by Cass Business School and five other schools, is now in its fourth and final year. Prompted by an audit in 2001 revealing poor quality management in some UK schools, the six partners have developed tools and resources (downloadable from to help individual schools address quality issues. “This should give prospective students confidence that the British system is taking quality management very seriously,” says Professor Clive Holtham at Cass, QuBE project director.

Opportunities for fraud are not confined to schools: sometimes it can be prospective students who find ways of cheating on the application process – for instance, getting someone else to supply interview answers. For top schools, this is rarely a problem, but some less prestigious schools in the US are now conducting interviews by webcam rather than by phone. “This is a legitimate concern if you are unable to conduct face-to-face interviews,” says Professor Szymanski. “Where the stakes are high on both sides, you will always find some people on either side trying to cheat… It’s not yet a major problem – but I do think webcams are quite likely to come in here, too, partly because it’s a better way of doing interviews.”