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Business school accreditations: questioning the image and limitations of the system

Posté par Pascal Petitjeanil y a 3 annéespas de commentaire

In the global and hyper competitive business school sector, accreditation bodies occupy a strategic place: they have improved the legibility of the industry while guaranteeing a rise in the quality of schools and management training. To better anticipate and act on the particularities of the higher education market, it is important to understand, anticipate and qualify the role and impact that these organizations have on the image of the institutions they accredit.

Since the 1990s, the European higher education sector has seen the development of some new, heavyweight players: accreditation bodies. The first, AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), was created in the United States in 1916 following the consolidation of several American universities. The European equivalent, Equis was created many years later, in 1997, by the EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development). Both bodies audit management schools in their entirety, and according to well-defined quality criteria. AMBA, established in 1967 in the UK, is more specialized but accredits programmes other than MBAs.

A regulatory role

Although these non-governmental organizations assign certification without official sanction, they play a major role in the regulation of the higher education market by introducing necessary standards for the legibility and the hierarchy of institutions. In such a dense and prolific sector as business schools, their work has had a levelling up effect on the US and European markets. Today, accreditations act as labels of excellence which are as unavoidable as they are coveted.

Having long progressed beyond a simple trend, accreditations today have a direct impact on the image of an institution, facilitating the creation of links with potential teachers, students and academic partners. Holding a particular accreditation is even part of the evaluation criteria in most rankings and a school can sometimes be eliminated from such rankings if is not appropriately accredited. Thus, accreditations and rankings, two major assessment tools of the higher education market, are self-reinforcing. And this is no accident. It has long been difficult for reporters to verify the information provided by a school. With accreditation, the data obtained after a thorough audit is accurate and verified.

In marketing, a relative differentiator

As well as a standard of quality, accreditation is a prestigious differentiator. By being the first French school to obtain the AACSB label in 1997, ESSEC ensured an unprecedented advantage over its competitors. Since then, many others have followed. It is now the emerging markets such as China and India who wish to join the « club » of accredited schools: a considerable advantage in terms of marketing, as well as a gateway to prestigious international rankings such as the Financial Times.

However, this progression is not endless. If the effect of accreditation in emerging countries is still new and attractive, in more mature markets like Europe and the USA, the effect is slowly beginning to fade. Because the principle of accreditation is to push schools toward continuous improvement, from a marketing point of view it has created a uniform market. Inevitably, the more schools that are accredited, the less differentiating and prestigious the effect is on the image of a school. Moreover, in the US, the AACSB label is a true standard for institutions, similar to the State visa in France. In Europe, where this accreditation is still relatively scarce, it retains its prestige.

A sign of absolute quality?

Accreditation is a long process that not all structures can afford to invest in. The preparatory work is considerable and requires significant involvement on the part of staff, as well as a high financial outlay over several years. Many small, quality schools can never aspire to the “triple crown” accreditation.

This is especially so as accreditations, ultimately, are not necessarily recognized by recruiters. In the higher education world, there is often too much inward thinking and introspection. In the case of the French market, few employers dwell on a school’s accreditation. Instead, it is the rankings that provide the reference. It is here that we begin to see the limits of the system in terms of marketing as well as the challenge for accreditation bodies to be better recognized by companies. Concretely speaking, some triple-accredited schools still remain – in the rankings as in the minds of the public – behind other prestigious schools which are not triple-accredited. Taking the latest ranking of the Grandes Ecoles by Le Point in 2015 for example, in which we see that Essec (not triple-accredited although its Executive MBA programme with Mannheim is AMBA-accredited) is ranked ahead of the triple-accredited EMLyon. More surprisingly, schools such as PSB or EDC are ranked above a school like Sup de Co La Rochelle, even though it is AACSB-accredited. Note also that among some of the largest universities (some part of the Ivy League), many are not triple-accredited, including Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, Columbia Business School or Saïd Business School. These institutions have put forward several reasons for this including the financial cost or inadequate evaluation criteria in relation to their functioning and policies. In those circumstances, the fact of not having to make the effort to be double- or triple-accredited demonstrates the power of these institutions’ own image and reputation.

As the journalist Lilia Tlemçani outlined in an article for the New Economist in March 2013, AACSB focuses primarily on academic criteria that is of limited interest to a company that is not itself involved in research. This is why a school must make choices consistent across the types of accreditation that it obtains and its own strategic objectives. This topic is also addressed by Benoît Cret, sociology lecturer at the University Jean Moulin Lyon 3 and researcher at IFROSS, in his article “Institutional Strategies, Accreditation Strategies”, published by the French Management Revue. That said, the loss of an accreditation is noticed very quickly. ESCEM went through the painful experience of being denied its re-accreditation by Equis in 2009. The school appealed the decision unsuccessfully and in December 2011, it lost its accreditation status, which subsequently led to the creation of FBS whose demise has been well documented.

With increasing financial difficulties in recent years, particularly among French business schools, one may question the validity of such certifications that are issued today. Do they create a closed system and a dependence for schools that, after paying a pre-audit to see if they are certifiable, have to reinvest every 3, 5 or 10 years in these heavily administrative processes? This dependence is partly related to the strong link between accreditations and rankings in the media. Some renowned rankings require accreditation. This is the case for the Financial Times, which calls for an institution to be at least accredited by AACSB or Equis. Thus, the fact of not having or losing an accreditation could mean an institution will be excluded from, or otherwise see its position decline in, the rankings. However, rankings remain a dependable tool for students, their parents, and teachers, and so have an important impact in the selection process of a school. Some schools find themselves taken hostage, torn between the cost of the accreditation process and a fall in the rankings.

Still in line with the real needs of the market?

These lines of questioning should also make us consider the general adequacy of these accreditations in a higher education and employment market that has changed a lot over the last decade. Today’s education needs call into play the pedagogical models being used, which should in turn influence change in the evaluation criteria used by the accreditation bodies.

 

Their systems of assessment are particularly long and laborious. They are more favourable to programmes based on longer models and although the criteria are changing, the main evaluation anchors have changed very little. Conversely, graduates entering the job market must be reactive, rather like the companies that employ them who have multiple needs that evolve very quickly. Thus, businesses and young people are now expressing more of a need for shorter courses, with flexible modules.

The accreditation bodies, in order to continue to raise the quality of business schools consistently with companies’ needs, must now break the mold they have built by devising new assessment criteria directly linked to market expectations.

New areas for action

Nevertheless, the accreditation bodies still have many good years ahead of them, because in the higher education sector new markets are developing, as is the case with engineering schools. As the CTI writes on its website, « The Bologna Process has created a wide open higher education space, homogenizing the standards and names of diplomas. » To get a clearer picture, students and the general public need « criteria allowing them to navigate the overabundant supply of education offers. »

For example, faced with the challenges of the internationalization of its students, engineering schools have needed to differentiate themselves on the issue of mobility. It was in this context that the European accreditation EUR-ACE was created. Facilitating student mobility, EUR-ACE allows French engineering students to study abroad for a semester. Conversely, it allows students to support their candidacy at a foreign university. This label, which is based largely on the criterion of the internationalization of schools, meets a real market need, and may therefore ultimately be an asset to recruiters.

In addition to the EUR-ACE label, the CTI has long been thinking about creating an international accreditation. But it could also be envisaged for the EFMD to cast its net further than management education and seize the opportunity to begin accrediting engineering schools.

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