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As the Bologna harmonisation process begins to gather speed across Europe, schools are starting to prepare and in many cases launch a range of programmes – both general masters and specialist – to meet anticipated demand.

It has been predicted that by 2010, when the Bologna agreement is fully implemented, thousands of new programmes will be on offer.

With such a range of programmes coming on to the market there is inevitable concern over quality and more than two years ago ministers for the Bologna process invited the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education to develop “an agreed set of standards, procedures and guidelines on quality assurance”.

The association made a series of recommendations, including that institutions should be able to demonstrate their quality at home and internationally, and also recommended the creation of a European register of external quality assurance agencies operating in higher education within Europe.

It anticipates that “there is likely soon to be an increase of quality assurance bodies keen to make a profit from the value of a recognition or accreditation label”.

It points out that Europe has an opportunity to “exercise practical management of this new market”.

One of the first bodies to respond to this market is the Brussels-based European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD).

It accredits schools through Equis (European Quality Improvement System) already and since its inception seven years ago it has accredited 86 institutions in 28 countries.

Now with the promise of thousands of new degree programmes, EFMD is planning an accreditation scheme for degree programmes, called Epas (EFMD Programme Accreditation System).

“Epas has been created very much as a response to the Bologna accord and the recognition that schools are unsure how to respond to it,” says Julio Urgel, director of Equis and Quality Services. He says Epas is about market transparency: “An international programme accreditation that will make the global market for degree programmes more transparent for employers and students alike.”

Epas is aimed at all levels of programmes – bachelor degrees, pre-experience general management, MBA, PhD and DBA as well as specialised masters programmes.

“It is very much seen as a complement to Equis, not as a replacement,” says Chris Greensted, associate director Equis and quality services.

Epas will accredit an entire suite of degree programmes that must be in business/management or related areas, whereas Equis is a whole-school accreditation – assessing the school’s strategy, programmes, research, faculty, international approach and links with the corporate world.

Prof Greensted anticipates that for those schools that aspire to, but are not ready for, Equis accreditation, Epas will be a welcome alternative. Epas, he adds, will also appeal to those schools and institutions whose programmes do not qualify for the other main accrediting bodies; either the Association of MBAs, which accredits MBAs, pre-experience masters in management programmes (Pemms) and DBAs – or the AACSB which accredits schools along the Equis model.

Once Epas is running, says Prof Greensted, the hope is that it will be placed on the planned European register of accrediting agencies. And in time, Equis could be on the register.

Paul Verhaegen, chairman of the Community of European Management Schools (CEMS), who helped draw up the Epas guidelines, sees overlap between the work of national accrediting bodies and Epas and suggests those schools that hold the Epas kitemark may not need national accreditation for their programmes, or will be allowed some kind of waiver.

“It is my vision to create a global MSc league and market. If you create a new market, then of course you have to create a global accreditation process,” he says.

“Epas is of paramount importance for a new market.”

CEMS, a partnership of 17 European academic institutions, offers a Masters in International Management that will be eligible for accreditation under Epas.

Until now, adds Prof Verhaegen, it has not been possible for this programme to “have a truly pan-European programme accreditation”.

However, with yet more accreditation planned is there a danger of confusion?

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the London-based Association of MBAs is concerned.

“We are going to be creating a very confusing situation for employers and potential students in business education. I think up until now it has been easy to explain the difference between the three main accreditations but I think this is a new brand coming in alongside Equis, designed for a different market.”

While some schools will opt for Equis and Epas, others will have only Equis and still others only Epas. She says the result will be bewildering for students and recruiters.

“The only way to avoid the confusion and the necessarily increased costs is to work towards collaboration as far as possible between national and international accreditation agencies,” she says.

EFMD is running an Epas pilot, involving programmes from schools including Lille Graduate School of Management in France.

Jean-Pierre Debourse, former dean of the school and head of the school’s Equis accreditation process, describes the Epas process as useful, highlighting the programme’s strengths and weaknesses.

“I think it [Epas] is a very interesting opportunity for the development of programmes . . . it is always interesting to be at the beginning of a new system.”

He admits accreditation is both time- consuming and costly, but accepts that as the business world becomes mores competitive it is important to have differentiations.

At Grenoble School of Management in France, dean Judith Bouvard says that since the school already holds accreditation from Equis she feels there is no need to seek Epas accreditation. “Epas is a good idea, it is also probably a good idea for those schools working in a consortium whose programme does not belong to one particular school,” she adds.

At Equis, Prof Greensted says that so far, response of schools to this latest accreditation move has been positive. Part of Bologna’s remit is to encourage student mobility and academic transparency and he believes that Epas will help students when transferring their degrees, for example from a bachelor’s programme in France to a master’s in Spain.

Whether there is room for yet more accreditation is another question. Prof Greensted points out that the market will decide. However, he says: “It is a logical move for EFMD and for Epas to build on the Equis brand.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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