Picking a first-rate MBA course is easy, thanks to the 'gold standard' of the Association of MBAs' accreditation scheme

Some institutions seem to offer accreditation from a bewildering number of bodies, making the issue of determining their quality increasingly more complex. However, accreditation by the Association of MBAs is still considered the gold standard by most UK schools.

The Association started assessing schools in the Seventies, and set up a formal accreditation scheme in 1989. It has now accredited more than 30 UK schools, covering around 65 per cent of the total student intake; recent additions include The Royal Military College Shrivenham, Trinity College School of Business Studies at the University of Dublin, and the School of Management and Business at the University of Wales, as well as the Theseus International Management Institute in Nice, France.

Accreditation provides a reliable guide to the quality of an MBA course, and is especially important if you intend to go to a less well-known school. According to the Association's recent salary and career survey, more than 60 per cent of MBA graduates believe having an accredited MBA makes a difference. For prospective employers it signals that the skills and knowledge you can offer will be of a high calibre.

"I do think accreditation is hugely important," says Imperial College Management School director Professor David Norburn. "It is an endorsement of quality at a time when we've had tremendous dilution in the title of MBA. Unfortunately there has been a proliferation of accreditation. But in the UK the Association of MBAs is without a doubt the most important."

Accreditation by the Association is a rigorous process, involving assessment at least every five years. The criteria for success are exacting, in order to ensure protection for prospective students as well as a measure of quality for employers. Business schools must be able to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose, and be regularly engaged in a high level of management research, scholarship and consultancy work. Their facilities should be excellent, and staff must be well qualified, with the majority holding a doctorate. The MBA should have clear aims and learning outcomes, and cover all the major aspects of general management.

"With the huge number of programmes and the phenomenal amount of often confusing information available, accreditation provides solid evidence that the school is offering a quality product, not an MBA cobbled together as a licence to print money," says Amanda Brook, external affairs manager at the University of Bath School of Management.

Accreditation also guarantees the quality of the people you will be learning from and networking with. Since the MBA is a qualification for those expected to make a significant impact at senior management levels, accredited programmes can only normally accept someone with an honours degree or equivalent, and at least three years of managerial experience.