Accreditation is a process that business schools volunteer for in order to get public recognition that they have achieved a certain standard of education.
Most business schools are accredited to some level, so it is worth asking an unaccredited school why they are not.
There are three international accreditation bodies. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), started as a body accrediting US and Canadian business schools, although it now accredits schools outside North America.
The European Fund for Management Development (EFMD), has its accrediting body, EQUIS, which now accredits outside the European Union.
Both of these accreditation bodies look at, and accredit, the school as a whole, taking in big picture issues such as resources, quality of faculty, and programs on offer.
The third body, the Association of MBAs (AMBA), based in the UK, accredits individual MBA programs rather than the school as a whole.
There are other accrediting bodies but these operate on a local level. The Central and East European Management Development Association (CEEMAN), for example, accredits business schools in the central European region.
So how important is it for an MBA candidate to consider accredited programs above unaccredited ones?
Nunzio Quacquarelli, managing director of the QS World MBA Tour, believes accreditation is important, as long as the candidate’s expectations are realistic.
“Accreditation provides a threshold of standard for business schools,” he says.
“The specific focus of each board is quite different so they are measuring different things.
"A candidate needs to understand what accreditation a school or program has received and why, before making their decision.
It is important that a school is accredited either locally or internationally.”
Durham Business School in the UK, is one of only 34 international business schools to be triple-accredited by the AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS.
The school’s Dean, Rob Dixon, says attaining all three kitemarks involves a great deal of commitment and hard work, but it is something that many top MBA programs strive for, at significant cost and effort.
“There is no doubt that the independent endorsement and credibility of an accreditation kitemark is a standard of excellence worth striving for,” Dixon says.
“In today’s crowded MBA market it [accreditation] provides students with a useful benchmark and starting point when deciding which schools to consider.
"However, one of the most important points about any accreditation is that it demonstrates a real commitment to quality and a process of continuous improvement and development.”
Jerry Trapnell, chief accreditation officer from the AACSB, based in Florida, stresses that accrediting bodies are co-operative and not in competition with each other, due to their different philosophies and methodologies.
“We have great respect for EQUIS accreditation and the schools that have earned it.
"EQUIS accreditation standards have a strong focus on how schools address internationalization among curricula, faculty, and students of the business school as well as relationships with corporations/businesses.
"AACSB clearly expects schools to prepare their graduates for work in the global economy and to seek appropriate input and counsel from various stakeholders to include employers, alumni, students, and faculty; however, we grant significant latitude on how this is accomplished.”
Accreditation is not without its critics. One senior business school representative in Europe speculated whether a hidden result of accreditation could be that schools, which thrive on differentiating themselves in terms of school culture and education, “might be at risk of becoming too similar to one another as a result of the system of benchmarking so regularly and deeply.”
This is not a concern for Xavier Mendoza, Director General of ESADE Business School in Barcelona and a long-term member of the AACSB, however, who believes that the good outweighs the bad.
“Accreditation is a system of governance by the education industry in order to raise standards by allowing a framework of accountability within a school and also with its peers.
"While it does make schools conform to a pre-requisite level, accreditation also makes schools compete on quality and not simply on cost, which can only be a good thing.
"And it creates a need for top-quality second and third tier schools to cater for the students who don’t make it into the very highest sphere of business schools.”
IE’s Michael Aldous agrees. “Frankly, I do not believe that top accreditation systems jeopardise the identity of schools.
"The accredited schools under AMBA, for example, vary substantially in terms of mission, program range and resources. Some are more innovative and others more traditional. This diversity contributes to the richness of the system.”
Accreditation, while important, is not the only criteria that candidates should look for.
It’s impossible to accredit a school culture, for example, and it can only offer hints about the quality of non-faculty staff, such as careers advisors who also play a part in the MBA experience.
“Accreditation harmonizes on the quality of education, but candidates can, and should, still choose on any number of other issues which accreditation does not touch on. For example their approach to CSR and sustainability issues,” Mendoza says.