Accreditation inflation: business schools seek multiple approvals

AMBA, AACSB and Equis issue record numbers of quality marks
Politecnico di Milano is adorned with an array of accreditations from various bodies © Marka/Alamy

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For those who could be spending $100,000 on an MBA course, a quality check by a third party feels reassuring. The problem for prospective business school students, however, is that the industry is assessed by multiple accreditation bodies. How do you judge which is the best for your choice of school?

Politecnico di Milano School of Management (MIP), for example, outshines many of the world’s top institutions when it comes to the number of accreditations it has collected. The school’s teaching is endorsed by Asfor, the Italian management education body; by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), its continent-wide equivalent; and the Association of MBAs (AMBA), a global accreditation body based in London. The school is also in the process of being endorsed by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), founded in 1916. This US organisation gives its backing to 780 schools in 53 countries.

For business schools, each body requires considerable effort, not to mention expense, to please. Some of the world’s greatest institutions, including Harvard Business School, the Wharton School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, have built global brands with just one endorsement, from the AACSB. So why does a high-quality school such as MIP seek so many forms of accreditation?

“Dealing with only one accreditation body would be more cost effective,” says Andrea Sianesi, MIP’s dean. But the advantage of four accreditations, he says, is four different views on how MIP can raise its game.

Many schools are concerned about their future survival, with more than half of those teaching traditional two-year MBA courses reporting application numbers either flat or falling last year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. The business of assessing the quality of business school teaching has never looked so rosy.

AMBA, the London-based body, says this year record numbers of academic institutions are paying the £22,000 fee for membership and accreditation, with annual dues on top. Approval has been awarded to 244 schools, up from 199 just three years ago, across 70 countries. Its focus on MBAs, the flagship courses at most business schools, and specialist masters degree courses, means AMBA tends to attract prestigious institutions.

“We all do very different things,” Andrew Main Wilson, AMBA chief executive, says about his organisation’s relationship with other accreditation bodies. “But we are very pleased to be at the top end of the market.”

Oxford’s Saïd Business School has AMBA and the EFMD’s Equis accreditation. The latter was created in 1997 as a broader measure of business school achievement beyond MBA courses. Kathy Harvey, associate dean for MBA and executive degrees, says: “There could be an argument for having a single accreditation body if you were starting from scratch, but that is not the reality.”

The value of different bodies is that each can focus on elements of a business school’s work, says Ms Harvey. Another strength is that they set the same standards for all schools, particularly important in a global market, she adds.

With 167 institutions accredited under its criteria, Equis has endorsed fewer schools than its rivals. Martin Schader, director, claims this is evidence his organisation has the most rigorous assessment in the market.

“[We benchmark] the school against a set of international standards in terms of governance, programmes, students, faculty, research, and foremost, internationalisation, ethics, responsibility and sustainability, as well as corporate engagement,” he says.

The aim for many schools is the so-called triple crown of AACSB, AMBA and Equis accreditation, held by 76 schools worldwide. Many schools that regularly top MBA rankings — including that published by the Financial Times — such as HBS, Stanford GBS and Wharton — do not have it. But Warwick Business School, another highly ranked institution, is among their number.

John Colley, associate dean at Warwick Business School, claims the triple crown is worthwhile.

“It helps distinguish Warwick from a very crowded market,” he says. “AMBA is probably the most important, as it is one that students seeking to do an MBA outside the US look to.”

Competition for the best students is driving the accreditation market. However, it is just one of several factors students look at when applying for a school. Most prospective students base their choice of school on factors other than accreditation badges, such as salary increases achieved by those who have already graduated, according to Matt Symonds, a director of Fortuna Admissions, which helps prospective business school students find places.

Accreditation may be a necessary requirement, but for many it is not enough to make a commitment.

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