Accreditation vital as business schools keep up with the Joneses

October 18, 2002

Persuading students to invest in postgraduate business study is no easy job, especially with so many providers. Institutions are increasingly investing the huge sums of money and meeting the exacting criteria required to be accredited by all three UK non-governmental business school accrediting agencies.

All three bodies market themselves as international because the conventional wisdom in business is that managers must reflect globalisation. In reality, each relies on its domestic base.

The market leader in Britain is the London-based Association of MBAs (Amba). It accredits MBA courses rather than schools, and 35 UK schools have Amba accreditation. So do 40 other overseas, mostly in Europe, but there is none in the US, where the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) dominates the market.

Amba may not be able to make inroads on the AACSB's patch, but the US organisation has made an impression in Britain since it moved into Europe in 1998. Its 430 accreditations include four prestigious schools - London, Manchester, Warwick and Henley.

London, Warwick and Henley also have accreditation from the third body, the Brussels-based European Federation of Management Development, whose accreditation is called Equis.

Equis has a few schools outside Europe, including one in the US - the University of Florida, which targets European students - but essentially its patch is Europe, including Britain, where it accredits 12 schools (all of which are also accredited by Amba).

This is a potential nightmare for business schools. "We were being done by the Quality Assurance Agency, then we had the research assessment exercise, then the Amba team for renewing the accreditation," said David Norburn, dean of the management school at Imperial College, London. "You get shell-shocked."

Professor Norburn has refused to invite the European and American accrediting bodies to disrupt his school, too, but he thinks he may have to if he is not to be at a disadvantage when competing for overseas students.

He would like one visit to provide all three accreditations. But the three bodies are a long way from agreeing a joint process. The only way they cooperate is to arrange their visits to coincide.

"The long-term potential of a merger is plausible, but it won't be in the next ten years," said John Fernandes, chief executive of the AACSB, which - because it is by far the biggest and because the US is the birthplace of management education - would take the lead in any merger. The AACSB might be able to make the other two irrelevant.

Mr Fernandes said: "As the AACSB grows, we will be able to say that we accredit in all countries and all continents and you can rely solely on us."

Some schools do not bother with accreditation, saving both the fee and the large investment required to meet the criteria. But Rick Crawley, director of external relations at Lancaster University Management School, said there was no future in that approach.

"Having accreditation does matter. It's information that is useful to potential students and potential corporate clients," he said.

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