Credit where it’s due: the accreditation journey

The recently held AMBA & BGA Accreditation Forum looked at how to manage multiple school accreditations and heard from seasoned business school practitioners on the best way to handle the accreditation process. Ambition editor Colette Doyle reports

Understanding the added value that your business school can offer is essential when it comes to gaining accreditation. It’s also important to have a steering committee, as this enables you to be close to the dean, giving you the authority necessary to make the process run smoothly, something that is vital when there is resistance from faculty who often prefer to spend time on research.

This was the message from Antonella Patras, vice-dean of quality and accreditation at the International University of Monaco. She was speaking at a session on how to manage multiple accreditations during last week’s AMBA & BGA Accreditation Forum, held at Queen’s Business School in Belfast.

Queen’s director of accreditation Alan Hanna described it as “very much a journey for each school” and Ramon Noguera, academic director at EADA in Barcelona, concurred, adding that the key point is “understanding your own story, what you have to tell”. Noguera advocated taking a ‘big picture’ approach, getting the various stakeholders to compile their own material, which he then edits to make a coherent and consistent whole.

Good relationships are vital to success

Charing the panel was Han van Dissel, dean emeritus at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Economics and Business, who asked participants if they used “a stick or carrot approach” when it came to the accreditation process. “A bit of both”, replied Patras, who added that it was “hard for an admin person to spearhead the initiative” without buy-in from more senior staff.  Noguera agreed, noting that “continuing relationships across the school is vital… one of the biggest challenges we face is that staff are busy and have other priorities”.

He pointed to the fact that, given his school has been accredited for 25 years, there is “an element of trust”, meaning that, for instance, he uses the EQUIS self-assessment submission as the basis of his documentation for AMBA accreditation.

Touching on the various different accreditations available, Noguera said that while in his opinion it was “hugely valuable” to have AMBA accreditation, some schools may feel more drawn to other schemes. According to the EADA academic director, “AMBA helps with [a school’s] marketing position, while EQUIS helps with institutional programmes”.

Meanwhile, Patras remarked that once it became clear the International University of Monaco wanted to seek an institutional accreditation, it went with AACSB as the various bodies “send messages to different segments of the market; the difference lies in the depth and scope”. The Queen’s director of accreditation noted there were diverse benefits associated with each one and highlighted BGA’s continuous impact model, which assesses the improvement in a business school’s influence across a range of dimensions.

Patras described her school’s market as “very international, we must be visible and make a statement, so for us it (AMBA accreditation) was the only way to go”. She added that it had resulted in a significant growth in student numbers and income. “It takes time to see the real effect, but it has definitely had a major impact.”

The triple crown debate

Van Dissel then made a controversial point: while triple crown status (where a business school’s MBA programme is accredited by AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB) is very popular in Europe, did the panel agree that “nobody cares about it in the US”? Hanna noted that the phenomenon has “much greater traction in the UK and Ireland”; he related that at Queen’s specifically it was seen as a way of “loosening the grip” of the university to achieve greater autonomy. “It was needed to have a highly ranked school, so we were pushed to achieve it”, he recalled.

Noguera noted that back in 2015, he would have said yes to attaining the triple crown, “but since then our priorities have changed and we are in no hurry”, although he did reference the fact that in Spain he has witnessed “notable growth in the number of schools embarking on the accreditation pathway”. He concluded by saying that the “value of the triple crown is always changing; if it becomes more dynamic, it might become relevant and [in that instance] we would reconsider.”

The chair then asked participants to sum up their key learnings: “Get started, there is no perfect time to go for accreditation”, advised Hanna, while Patras encouraged schools “not to get bogged down in the data; people are far more important”. Noguera’s recommendation was “to make it work for you – know what you want to get out of it” and the University of Amsterdam’s dean emeritus urged those managing the process to ensure “you have sufficient, senior support”.

New member school perspective

Although there were inevitable difficulties, the accreditation process “went easier than expected” and discussing everything with faculty was “a positive experience”, noted Professor Atanas Georgiev, dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business administration at Sofia University, which recently secured AMBA accreditation. After all, as he joked during a forum session that heard from newly accredited schools, “you can eat an elephant if you do it piece by piece”.

Georgiev explained that his faculty is one of the few schools within the university to offer a post-graduate programme in English and that it is also the first internationally accredited school in Bulgaria, providing in excess of 25 MBA programmes. In addition, it is a member of internationally renowned networks such as PRME (Principles for responsible management education) and the Organisation for economic cooperation and development (OECD).

Forum delegates heard that Sofia University is in the process of undergoing a major transformation, covering touchpoints such as sustainable development, empowerment and engagement, digital transformation, executive education and IP and technology transfer, as well as cross-disciplinary programmes.

The accreditation process “starts with a small step”, remarked Georgiev, adding that it has to do with “the power of alumni, the ambition to join the best and the energy of the community”. His advice to perspective schools interested in becoming AMBA members was this: “they must ensure to involve all the relevant stakeholders”.

Opportunities & challenges

AMBA’s focus on flagship programmes provides a different perspective to other accrediting bodies, according to Professor Stephen Bach, executive dean at King’s Business School and the second speaker in the session on the accreditation journey of new members. He added that “the peer review process is extremely useful in terms of both internal and external conversations”.

King’s College decided “a top-notch business school” was required in order to add value to the London-based university and that was the raison d’être for its opening in 2017. Faculty has grown by 85 per cent over the past five years, reported Bach and he declared that the school is “more market-facing and closer to business than any other discipline”.

All business schools are wrestling with a series of pressing challenges at present, noted the King’s executive dean. There is a worldwide debate about adding value and the agility of the sector in the context of diverse entry routes into employment, as well as the growth of pre-experience pathways, meaning that both more generalist and more specialist MSc programmes are impacting on the MBA.

There are also employer behaviour concerns about talent, retention, morale, skills and disruption, while geopolitics and softening labour markets are negatively impacting on the willingness and capacity of prospective students to invest in their education.

Turning to the accreditation process, Bach acknowledged that it “can feel shrouded in mystery”, but noted that AMBA “has helped to de-mythologise” it. He ended with some tips for other schools: they should check AMBA’s quality threshold criteria before starting; engage colleagues in the process early on; use the peer review visit as an opportunity for discussion and mutual learning; and be aware that the role of the panel chair is key. And, finally, he threw in one thing not to do: “Don’t be afraid to ask AMBA questions, as the team is very responsive”.

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