Why is accreditation important? It’s an important question for any business school applicant to ask. It seems like every business school boasts of their endorsement by different quality assurance bodies.
Accreditations are widely-used as stamps of quality. Many rankings systems require that schools are accredited in order to be eligible. To participate in the Financial Times’ MBA rankings, for example, schools need to be accredited by AACSB or EQUIS (see below).
It’s understandably easy for prospective students to get lost in the noise, bamboozled by a barrage of official-sounding acronyms. What does it all mean?
What does an accreditation say about a school? Why should prospective MBA students care?
Here’s what you need to know about MBA accreditation:
The Three Big Accreditation Bodies
There are three big international names in the world of business school accreditation: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the Association of MBAs (AMBA), and the European Foundation for Management Development’s (EFMD) Quality Improvement System (EQUIS).
Broadly speaking, they all do the same thing: assess business schools’ quality. Gareth Howells, executive director of the MBA, Master’s in Finance, and Early Career Programs at London Business School (LBS), a triple-accredited organization, says that to review a school for accreditation is to “really get under that school’s skin.”
How does it work? LBS will send a ton of information on its programs and processes to the accreditation body. After reviewing the information, Gareth explains, the accreditation panel then spends up to a week at the school.
The panel is usually made up of representatives from other business schools as well as the accreditation body, and they conduct numerous meetings with people at every level of the organization—from board members to lecturers to students—as part of their assessment.
The oldest body in business school accreditation is AACSB, which was founded in 1916. They assess schools based on 15 ‘standards’ which cover everything about a program, from strategic management and innovation, to academic and professional engagement.
Most of the top-ranked schools in the world carry an AACSB accreditation, including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT Sloan. AACSB is still a widely-trusted and respected accreditor of business schools, despite having lost official recognition from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in 2016.
The second major business education accreditation body is AMBA. “AMBA is the only accreditation which is focused purely on the MBA itself,” explains Andy Vassallo, director of MBA programs at the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) AMBA-accredited Norwich Business School.
AMBA’s specific focus allows the accreditation body to dig further into the details of the MBA course, and AMBA has requirements which don’t appear on the more generalized accreditations’ lists of standards.
For example, AMBA requires ‘substantial interaction between the faculty and the cohort group’—a requirement that generally disadvantages distance-learning programs. However, online MBAs can gain AMBA accreditation, as the University of Birmingham’s Online MBA proved when it became the first AMBA-accredited MBA of its kind in 2016.
Finally, accreditor EQUIS is run by the European Foundation for Management Development. Its main point of difference from the other two major accreditation bodies is in its emphasis on internationalization.
EQUIS requires international diversity on both the governing and advisory boards of its accredited business schools. EQUIS also requires that schools have a strategy for international development and asks for proof that schools have allocated appropriate resources to achieve these goals.
What’s in it for schools?
As it turns out, accreditation is more than just a quality stamp-come marketing tool to target prospective students.
Timothy Mescon—executive VP and chief officer for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at AACSB—explains that AACSB accreditation allows schools to tap into a global network of quality business schools and leaders.
“In the UK and Ireland, accreditation managers from schools meet three times a year to share information about accreditation,” Timothy explains. “They compete for students, obviously, but in the quality assurance space it’s a really supportive environment that I think is unique to AACSB.”
For Andrea Masini, associate dean and head of the MBA program at the triple-accredited HEC Paris, it’s about a constant commitment to improvement, as accredited schools are fully audited by the accreditation bodies every three-to-four years.
“The value of an accreditation is that it will constantly scrutinize your processes and push you to become better,” he says. “I’m an operations management professor and quality management is a central engine of development for any organization.
“The value [of accreditation] is not the label itself, but in the improvement cycle that’s associated with it.”
What is the value for students?
According to admissions expert and consultant Barbara Coward, accreditation is rarely at the forefront of candidates’ minds when applying to busines school, but it should be. “Having a double or triple-accreditation is worth considering,” she advises, “because that school has to go through a lot during the accreditation process.”
Likewise, LBS’s Gareth Howells advises high-achieving candidates to have accreditation at the top of their list when researching schools. “It’s only a baseline,” he says. “Most [of the top] schools will have, if not two, then all three accreditations.
"That’s not to suggest they’re easy to get, they’re not—but for every candidate considering business school, accreditation should be the very first check.”