In Britain and beyond, new schools are joining AMBA's distinguished list

Few would argue that MBAs are now big business. In the UK they are the most popular masters degree, accounting in 2004 for one in seven of all masters qualifications awarded, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit. And in the US, 65 per cent of business schools reported a rise in applications to full-time programmes last year.

For potential MBA graduates trying to choose a course, it is a crowded, competitive marketplace. To get lucrative bums on seats, business schools are finding accreditation is a "must have". Students may look at the rankings but they will want to know if a school is accredited and, if not, why not.

The Association of MBAs (AMBA), which has been accrediting schools since the Eighties, adds around six new faces to its list each year. The schools are not just in Britain but across the globe.

In the past six months, the universities of Surrey, Swansea and Hull have all received AMBA approval. But the MBA programmes at Zhejiang University, south-west of Shanghai, the International Institute of Business in the Ukraine and ESE Universidad de los Andes in Chile have also been accredited.

Taking AMBA accreditation on to a wider global stage has been a planned strategy, with China and India key targets, says Jeannette Purcell, chief executive. But such expansion inevitably creates its own challenges, most notably around quality control at such a vast distance.

A team of inspectors from London carries out the initial accreditation visit, but longer term AMBA relies on a network of local representatives who can go in and troubleshoot on the association's behalf, she stresses.

"It is a case of ensuring we have people on the ground acting on our behalf; that is the only way to manage a global system. It shows the schools that we understand the environment in which they are operating," she says.

In the two months since Surrey's programme was accredited, the number of students coming on to its part-time MBA has already risen from six to 23 (the full-time programme has yet to start this year's recruiting round), says programme director Dr Sonia el Kahal Maclean.

"What accreditation means for us is that students can be confident there is a high-quality teaching programme and curriculum. It gives them confidence that the programme is being monitored," she says.

The MBA programme was launched in 2005, although an MBA was run through the old business school, before it was replaced by the School of Management. AMBA was invited in to accredit the programme in October, a process that took two days and will mean the programme is accredited for the next three years.

One of the defining elements of the Surrey programmes is its emphasis on practical application, she stresses. There is an "action learning" integrative module where students spend time applying what they have learnt to real-life case studies, including most recently a local charity called Guildford Action and a bakery firm, Bakehouse.

"There are now so many MBAs to choose from. Even international students look at AMBA," says Maclean.

The Swansea University MBA, originally launched in 1998, was redesigned in 2004 with the express aim of achieving accreditation, says Professor Andrew Henley, head of the School of Business and Economics.

"What we have tried to do is to strike a balance between the academic content of the MBA with a strong emphasis on it being an integrative programme. Students see how the bits integrate and that leads on to a better, strategic understanding of the business," he explains.

From 11 students on the one-year full-time course two years ago it has grown to 33, with around 15 to 20 different nationalities represented, he estimates. "You may have spent six years in an operations function or whatever, so we want to be able effectively to take you up in a helicopter and let you look down," says Henley.

"Students have to have some idea that the programme has been exposed to a rigorous process of accreditation. They can have confidence that what they are spending their money on makes sense."

While no one MBA model will guarantee accreditation, what accreditation shows is that a school has reached set minimum standards; that it has a quality team of academics behind it and offers a set range of core subjects, AMBA's Purcell explains.

"Accreditation is an intensive, qualitative assessment of the programme. And what our research has found is that accreditation does make a difference to salary. It gives you an assurance that your MBA is going to be valued and will give you a return," she says.

Accreditation systems

There are three main MBA accreditation systems: AMBA, the Equis standard run by the European Foundation for Management Development and, in the US, the Association of Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

AMBA ( www.mbaworld.com): With some 115 MBA and Masters courses accredited worldwide, AMBA looks at an institution's strategy and understanding of its markets, the quality and size of the faculty, its admissions process, curriculum and assessment and international profile.

Schools must offer, among other things, a minimum of 500 hours contact time, a critical mass of participants (at least 20), an active and well-established alumni association and library and research facilities that can be accessed electronically outside working hours.

AACSB ( www.aacsb.edu): The AACSB has been accrediting business and accounting schools since 1919, before the MBA as a qualification even existed, and accredits both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

It has around 540 accredited schools, 90 of which are outside the US.

It will assess how an institution manages its resources, the quality of its faculty, research and scholarship, the calibre of its teaching staff, the curriculum, the interaction between students and faculty and whether graduates have achieved specific learning goals.

Equis ( www.efmd.org): Established in 1997, Equis covers more than 100 business schools in 31 countries. Like the AACSB it is not just for MBAs. Schools have to demonstrate their programme is of a high standard, with good levels of internationalisation, research, e-learning and links with corporate communities.

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