Grand seal of approval: 2009 sees a surge in accredited business schools

For every business school in the world, being given accreditation by an international body is undoubtedly the most effective way of attracting new students. It is much more than a badge of honour: it is an assured seal of quality which secures its reputation as an internationally recognised business training centre.

The three big accrediting bodies are the Association of MBAs (AMBA) in Britain, the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) in Europe and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) in the United States.

And with business schools across the world competing to lure students from the emerging markets of Asia, it is not surprising that AMBA has been very busy recently, accrediting no fewer than 13 schools in the past year – all of them outside the UK. In Portugal, five have been accredited in the last two years.

According to Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of AMBA, the sudden rush in accredited European schools can be explained by the Bologna Accord, a general agreement to make academic degree standards more comparable across Europe. Before it existed, students in countries such as Germany did first degrees lasting five or six years – twice as long as their counterparts in the UK. Now, most European countries are moving closer to the British system.

"The reason this affects the MBA is that more students are now emerging from European universities with a first degree after three years, and are looking for something to do next," says Purcell. "It is hoped that many of them will be attracted to these new programmes."

Another explanation for the rise in the number of schools seeking accreditation – a trend that looks set to continue – could lie in the current global economic downturn. While the financial markets remain volatile, many students choose to leave their jobs voluntarily and spend the time improving their skills on an MBA. And if people find themselves made redundant before they have the chance to leave, the same situation applies.

With so much talent to compete for, it makes sense that more business schools are applying for accreditation. But for an institution to be able to display the AMBA logo on its website, it has to meet a number of stringent criteria. Students must have worked in business for a minimum of three years; they should go through a selection process before gaining entry; and they cannot all come from the same country.

"Part of the MBA experience should be about learning from a diverse group of peers," Purcell says. "There's a lot of group learning and networking that goes on, and that is so much richer if it's a multinational group of students. If, for example, there are 50 places which are filled by 50 Chinese students, we wouldn't be accrediting."

Although Purcell describes some of the criteria as "immovables", she also says that the accreditation process is evolving, as business schools become increasingly innovative in the way they deliver their programmes. Some recruit members of their teaching faculty locally; others fly their professors in from all over the world. Both methods can work very well.

"Increasingly, we are having to be more flexible in terms of what our accreditation requirements are," Purcell accepts. "It's no longer possible to say to each school, 'We expect you to have this list of 20 things', and then tick every box, because a lot of the courses are very different. What we see at Insead is not what we'd expect to see at a new school in Ukraine."

One question faces prospective students from Europe and emerging nations such as India and China alike: is it better to choose a long established school in Europe, or one which has only recently gained accreditation in their home country?

Lenny Koh of Sheffield University Management School, which has recently strengthened its partnership with the newly accredited City College in Thessaloniki, Greece, says the answer is not as straightforward as you might expect.

"If I was a student about to do an MBA, I'd go for one of the newly accredited schools, because they are hungrier for success," she says. "They work very hard and look for ways to improve all the time, and the experience would be more exciting." Established schools, she says, which have been accredited for many years, generally feel more secure and might not work as hard to innovate.

Alistair Benson, MBA director of the triple-accredited Manchester Business School Worldwide, which is very active in China and elsewhere, points out that many British institutions have excellent partnerships with schools in developing markets. But, he adds, the most important thing for students to consider is whether their programme will offer them an insight into the market of the country where they want to work.

"Huge numbers of Indian students come to the UK," says Benson. "But unless they actually get a flavour of what international business is like in respect to India, they might not be getting an MBA which will stand them in good stead when they go home."

'The personal approach appealed to me'

Lisa Kettman-Kervinen, 49, studied for her MBA at Hanken School of Economics in Finland, which was awarded AMBA accreditation last year.

"I think accreditation does play a role for a lot of people who are considering doing an MBA. At the time, I was trying to choose between Hanken and the Helsinki School of Economics, which I knew had been accredited, and a lot of people who had gone there told me it was very important.

In the end though, it boiled down to the fact that Hanken had the right areas of specialisation, and a very well respected professor in the field I was interested in. Their personal approach also really appealed to me. I'm originally American, but I've lived in Finland for 24 years now, and I knew I wanted to stay there. Now that it has been accredited, I think it will help its reputation in neighbouring countries such as Sweden and Estonia.

The international aspect of the course also appealed. I knew they did some studying abroad, and I was expecting it to be somewhere in Europe or the United States, but instead we went to New Zealand for a marketing module, which was a fantastic learning experience. We also had visiting professors coming in from all over the world."