MBA Accreditation: The right seal of approval

Accreditation has become a vital part of how business schools sell themselves to prospective students
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The Independent Online

Everywhere you look in the commercial world, businesses parade their credentials. Hotels advertise their stars, furniture their kite-marks and new cars their awards. The business education world is no different, and the currency of competition is the endorsement from one or all of the three accrediting bodies overseeing the landscape.

And these days, as competition for students intensifies, endorsement by the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) is a must if a business school has any pretensions to excellence.

"Being a business school is incredibly competitive," says Dr Helen Higson, of Aston Business School, one of only 24 institutions worldwide to be able to boast "triple accreditation".

"Getting all three accreditations certainly established us as a leading school," she adds, citing research that showed a rapid expansion in international recruitment to Aston's programmes after 2003, when the AACSB kite mark was added to the EQUIS and AMBA accreditations already held.

Evidence of the benefits of accreditation is important, given the time and expense that schools must commit to the application process. Higson estimates that just one application can suck in two full-time staff for as much as nine months, as they write the lengthy submissions demanded by the bodies, plus one senior academic part-time for several months to act as the "champion" for the application. This comes on top of the fee: AMBA charge £17,000 to schools in Western Europe, for example.

Given these outgoings, it may seem surprising that business schools deem it necessary to jump through two or three different sets of hoops. The fact that they do is a reflection of the different markets each organisation targets.

The first important distinction is that AMBA accredits programmes of study, chiefly MBAs, rather than a business schools as a whole. Once a school has applied to AMBA, the body looks at all the MBA variants on offer at the school( full time, executive, distance learning etc), concentrating on three key areas: the quality of faculty, the calibre and experience of students, and the curriculum, which has to be, at heart, a general management programme.

The exact criteria, addressed in detail by the business school's written submission, are constantly under review. The most recent change to these, agreed by the senior academics comprising AMBA's International Accreditation Advisory Board, raised the minimum length of management work experience for MBA students from two years to three.

In the last 12 months, AMBA has widened its remit to accredit pre-experience masters programmes and doctors of business administration. Both these are, at present, confined to schools already holding AMBA accreditation for their core MBA programmes.

For AMBA's Chief Executive, Jeanette Purcell, the expanded remit is necessary because the increased variety of postgraduate management courses available causes potential confusion among students. "We feel it is our role to step in and promote clearer criteria in the marketplace," she explains.

In contrast to AMBA, the EQUIS and AACSB accreditations relate to whole schools rather than programmes. The EQUIS accreditation, awarded by the European Foundation of Management Development, but not restricted to European institutions, is regarded as a mark of peer recognition among schools.

At Imperial College's Tanaka Business School for example, an EQUIS application is currently live, with the outcome expected in October. Leading the application is the deputy principal, Dorothy Griffiths, who describes EQUIS as a quality mark particularly important for student applicants outside the UK. "Because our major competitors have it, we need to have it as well to show that we're as good," she explains.

The least well-known accreditation in Europe is the AACSB, which is overwhelmingly a North American quality mark. Ninety three per cent of institutions come from that side of the Atlantic.

However with the "triple accreditation" badge becoming more common, European schools will feel under increasing pressure to go for the complete set.