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International business schools and the search for quality

By Margaret Adolphus


Business education has become a highly competitive area: there are currently around 10,000 business schools worldwide, each serving a vastly mobile student population.

According to Chris Greensted, a former dean and current associate director of the European Foundation for Management Development's (EFMD) quality services department, the only way to survive in such an environment is to provide high quality programmes (Greensted, 2008).

But what is quality? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines quality as "the degree of excellence of a thing", or a "general excellence" – which then, of course, begs a definition of excellence.

Perhaps because of this essential intangibility, there is a great deal of activity around quality in higher education, which has become an industry in itself.

Take, for example, higher education in the UK, which is characterized by a high degree of regulation: internal reviews complemented by external teaching, and research reviews by separate organizations (e.g. the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and funding councils), while yet further organizations accredit professional qualifications in marketing, accountancy, and other business related functions.

Understanding "quality"

Perhaps "quality" in business education can best be understood in terms of the student experience, i.e. one where the student emerges from the course fully equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary to flourish in the modern world, having learnt from both faculty and peers.

Throughout the school he or she is supported by excellent teaching faculty with good research records and up-to-date contacts with industry.

Furthermore, there are plenty of opportunities for work placements, and career advice is on hand. The library is state of the art. The learning experience is engaging, with plenty of debate among colleagues. Finally he or she has the opportunity to feed back on every aspect of the course, and hence enhance even further the experience for future students.

But how are such standards of excellence measured and maintained? All too often, quality assurance, as the measurement of quality is known, is a matter of checking the standards of whichever body is responsible for funding, and then ticking the boxes.

However, Chris Greensted (2008) believes that this isn't enough: quality should become a way of life, embedding itself within the school and gaining the support of the dean and senior management.

Quality in higher education has probably been less researched than in business generally, but two British academics have explored quality management and enhancement processes in UK business schools. Here is their definition of quality assurance:

"The term quality assurance refers to the policies, processes and actions through which quality is maintained and developed (McKimm, 2003). It is concerned with addressing the issue of product or service non-conformance, it involves ensuring fitness for purpose (Lomas, 2004)" (Hodgkinson and Kelly, 2007: p. 78).

They also differentiate between:

  • management for quality, the process whereby the quality of product or service is achieved, and
  • quality management, which is the quality of the processes themselves.

They maintain that there are three simple questions which are central to the quality management process (Hodgkinson and Kelly, 2007: p. 79):

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. How well are we doing?
  3. How could we do it better?

Attempts to answer the last question lead inevitably to the issue of quality enhancement, which is improvement to quality, adding value, going beyond "fit for purpose". It is further suggested that quality enhancement, not assurance, should be the aim, for that way assurance will automatically be achieved.

Those who write in the British context, where universities are dominated by research, are anxious to highlight the importance and complexity of the teaching function, and therefore of staff development, continuing professional development, and innovation (Elton, 2001, quoted in Hodgkinson and Kelly, 2007: p. 79).

Editor's note

The author gives her sincere thanks to Chris Greensted, associate director of the quality services department, European Foundation for Management Development, for his help with this article.

Internal quality control

The steps taken by a business school to assure its own quality processes will, to a certain extent, differ according to the political environment within which it finds itself.

The UK, as we have seen, is over-regulated, with bodies for teaching, research, and professional qualifications. In Australia, there is one main body – the Australian Universities Quality Agency, which conducts audits on teaching, learning, quality and management. The South African Council on Higher Education has a similar role.

Taking responsibility

However, external bodies cannot guarantee quality on their own; the institution must take responsibility. Quality is not just something to be concerned about when an external inspection looms: it should be present in every process, whether teaching and learning, research, or administration and support.

Chris Greensted believes that schools should have a formal management system for quality improvement, alongside other functions such as research, teaching and learning, marketing and finance. The system should set standards and performance indicators, take action where necessary, and require reporting on a regular basis. The best quality systems should also strike a balance between being formal and having a "light touch", avoiding heavy bureaucracy (Greensted, 2008).

This does not, however, always happen. In fact, it was the weakness of quality management systems in business education that motivated some British business schools to form a consortium dedicated to its improvement. And while the (now defunct) Quality in Business Education project (QuBE) was obviously rooted in the British situation, its recommendations and research have a far wider relevance.

The project studied a range of business education providers and worked with key stakeholders (teachers, students, university managers, employers and quality management professionals). It found a great variety in standards: some schools were extraordinary, others needed to improve. It also found that quality, all too often, meant ticking boxes off some simple quality control system, rather than being concerned with the student experience; and that while data might be collected, they were not used to solve problems.

Business schools had a number of different attitudes towards quality:

  • They were unsatisfactory: they recognized that quality was a problem, but had no system in place to monitor it.
  • They were beginning to tackle the quality problem, but in a fragmented and ineffective way.
  • They were implementing a quality system, but as compliance rather than enhancement.
  • They were at the stage of quality enhancement: quality was embedded in the culture.
  • They were exemplar schools.

"The Dean's Dilemma"

The project also provided a number of diagnostic, awareness-raising and problem-solving tools which schools could use themselves to improve their quality. These included a management game, "The Dean’s Dilemma", a board game in which players take it in turn to make a key operational decision in a way that reinforces the institution’s quality policy.

Quality systems models

One of the most interesting reports is one which describes models on which quality systems can be based.

Hodgkinson and Kelly (2007) reviewed a number of models as described in Table I:

Table showing models and processes employed for quality assurance purposes in HEIs.

Table I. Models and processes employed for quality assurance purposes in higher education institutions

Each of these models has its strengths. Total Quality Management is an organization-wide approach used extensively in business, and has been advocated as an appropriate model for higher education. The European Framework for Quality Management is similarly holistic, although balanced scorecard is sometimes preferred because it translates vision into objectives, measures and targets in four different areas:

  1. finance
  2. customer
  3. internal business
  4. innovation and learning.

Methods 1-3 in Table I are fairly complex and wieldy to implement, so methods 4-7 are sometimes preferred as they are smaller scale and easier to manage. The authors, however, maintain that none of the approaches on its own is sufficient and argue for a multi-paradigmatic perspective, in which methods are used in conjunction with one another so as to complement each others' deficiencies.

They quote procedures arising out of a previous case study (Hodgkinson and Brown, 2003) as going some way towards meeting their recommended approach:

  • Hold a number of structured workshops and meetings to raise awareness of issues.
  • Listen to staff from all over the organization equally, and make sure there are no barriers between academic, administrative and support staff.
  • Do not just look at what is wrong: celebrate success.
  • Ensure that you have senior management backing: get deans and heads of departments to attend seminars and provide briefings. Note that if they are not committed to quality, then the school won't be either.
  • Take a gradualist approach and don't rush things.
  • Know what you – as a school – value, and work towards it.

Most important is to involve the whole of the school, so that the culture of quality permeates the organization.

International accreditation

The ultimate goal for business schools must be to gain the accreditation of the two major organizations set up to maintain quality in management education: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools in Business (AACSB) and the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD).

To receive such accreditation is an indication that the school is one of the foremost places in the world from which to obtain an education in business.

About the AACSB and EFMD

Both AACSB and EFMD are not-for-profit, membership organizations, whose mission is to defend, independently of any national government, the standards of business and management higher education. Both favour a system of quality improvement which is developmental rather than regulatory. However, there are also considerable differences between the two, which derive from their history and original mission.

The AACSB was set up in 1916 as the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business, with a view to defending business studies as an academic discipline, against considerable criticism. Its membership was mainly made up of academic business schools.

The EFMD was set up with a similar mission – the continuous improvement of management development – but its members came from corporations as well as from academic business schools. This reflects a difference in perspective between Europe and America: in the former, business education is based as much in the real world of the corporation as it is in the university.

Despite these differences, the EFMD standards of accreditation, the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS), were launched in 1999, at around the same time as the AACSB revised its own standards to meet the needs of the international market.

The result is that these two somewhat different organizations are now level players in the market they serve. According to Gordon Shenton, associate director, quality services department, EFMD (Shenton 2010), EQUIS has accredited 122 schools and the AACSB 110 outside America (of which 17 are in Canada).


There are big differences in what they assess, the standards and the process whereby accreditation is obtained.

The first major difference lies in what they assess:

  • EQUIS: Assesses the school as a whole, with all its programmes, from first degree up to Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), as well as research, any e-learning unit, executive education, and community outreach. It is especially concerned with the school's international aspect and its interface with business.
  • AACSB: The "accreditation unit" is the institution, which may be defined as a sub-unit within the institution as a whole, for example a business school or department of business studies. The AACSB assesses its programmes, and the institution may request that some programmes are excluded, for example those which are specialist, or which contain only a small component administered by the school, and are not totally business-focused, for example economics or statistics.

The standards

The table below provides a brief summary of the standards. The full versions, along with advice on how to interpret them and what sort of documentation to provide, can be found on the organizations' websites:

Table II. EQUIS and AACSB standards
Strategic management Should have a clear mission, effective governance and coherent strategy Mission statement should be appropriate to higher education and take account of stakeholders; there is also concern with intellectual contributions, a clearly defined student population, and financial strategies
Programmes and student learning Should be balanced between knowledge and skills acquisition, diversity in teaching methods, rigorous assessment, evaluation, and adequate staffing Management of curricula should be well-documented and systematic, with input from "all appropriate constituencies". Each programme type (undergraduate, general master's, etc.) has its own standard
Students Concern for admission, progression, careers help, diversity. There is a separate standard on personal development with a focus on ethics and leadership Concern for admission, retention and sufficient staff to support students, and students' responsibility with regard to both their own and others' learning
Faculty Faculty should be sufficient to cover core disciplines and "constitute a viable body of distinctive expertise" Concern with sufficiency, qualifications and with both aggregate and individual teaching responsibilities
Research School should produce and disseminate "original contributions to knowledge" Covered under strategic management with mention of importance of intellectual contributions; evidence is also required of contributions at the level of individual staff member
Executive education Should be integrated into strategy, help strengthen practitioner relevance, and improve business practice Not covered
Contribution to the community Should be a "good citizen", contribute to society and promote ethical behaviour and corporate responsibility Not covered
Internationalization Should have a clear strategy and policies for internationalization, including international collaboration with partner institutions Not covered
Corporate connections Should have a clear strategy and policy with regard to its corporate connections, including student interaction with the corporate world and faculty research and consultancy Not covered

The main difference between the standards is one of depth versus breadth.

The AACSB goes into considerable detail in the areas of mission, programmes/assurance of learning, and faculty and students – more in fact than EQUIS, although the latter is very rigorous in its assessment of this area. In recent years EQUIS has strengthened its focus on programmes and students.

EQUIS is much broader in its requirements and looks at additional areas: the international dimension, corporate and professional relevance, and link with the community.

Another difference is that the AASCB was set up as a national body, whereas EQUIS's initial remit was quality in international business schools.

The international dimension is particularly relevant in an age when higher education is becoming increasingly global [see the teaching insight: "The internationalization of higher education" – Instalments 1 and 2], and is a perspective that runs throughout the EQUIS standards.

The standards on corporate connections and executive education reflect EFMD's links with the corporate world, and are not present in the AACSB standards.

AACSB has many quantitative standards while EQUIS is more qualitative. This means that AACSB has a more prescriptive approach while EQUIS expects schools to justify their excellence largely in their own way.

The process

What the two organizations have in common is that they are based on the twin concepts of self-assessment and external review, and that they rely on the commitment of experienced deans who are prepared to act as peer reviewers or on committees.

Both processes, although thorough and exacting, are developmental in that they involve the school in self-scrutiny and in external review from experienced people from elsewhere in the business.

There are differences, however, relating to length of process and type of support.


The EQUIS process involves submitting a formal application, followed by a one-day briefing visit. A formal committee then decides whether or not the school is eligible: in other words, whether or not the school has a chance of achieving accreditation within two years.

If it does, then the school is encouraged to go ahead, with attention being drawn to possible areas of concern. The process of self-assessment according to guidance given in the EQUIS process manual can then begin.

The next stage is the peer review visit, which takes place over two-and-a-half days and consists of interviews with key stakeholders. A report is then written for the EQUIS awarding body which then makes the final decision. There are three possibilities:

  1. five-year accreditation,
  2. three-year accreditation with the requirement to submit an annual report on areas of concern, and
  3. non-accreditation.

The whole process takes between one and two years. At the end of the accreditation period, schools then go through a repeat of the cycle from stage 4 shown in the flowchart below: developing the self-assessment report and a new peer review visit.

Image: A flowchart showing the EQUIS accreditation process (EFMD, 2010).

A flowchart showing the EQUIS accreditation process (EFMD, 2010)


The AASCB accreditation process, on the other hand, takes longer, and there is a pre-eligibility stage. The school applies for eligibility, which is assessed by the pre-accreditation committee whose recommendations are passed on to the accreditation coordinating committee.

At the same time, the pre-accreditation committee assigns a mentor to guide the school through the process and help it design an accreditation plan, which should be congruent with its strategic plan. Once the accreditation plan is ready, it is submitted to the pre-accreditation committee, which reviews it and then submits it to the initial accreditation committee with its recommendations.

Once the initial accreditation committee is satisfied, the accreditation plan can be implemented. The mentor continues to help the school work towards accreditation and submits an annual report. When the mentor and school consider the time is right, initial accreditation can be applied for.

The next part of the process takes around two years, and a peer review team takes over from the mentor to advise the school in its preparations for the self-evaluation report. Once complete, the self-evaluation report is reviewed by the peer review team, which then visits the school and raises any concerns from the self-evaluation report. A report is then submitted to the initial accreditation committee.

If accreditation is granted, the school then enters a maintenance phase which is monitored by the maintenance of accreditation committee, and which involves a maintenance review. The latter involves a visit in the fifth year after being granted accreditation, as well as another self-evaluation report and the peer review team, after which accreditation may be granted for a further six years.


Both processes have advantages and disadvantages. That for AACSB is lengthy and bureaucratic as compared with EQUIS, which is much more "light touch". Its major advantage, however, is that it provides the support of a mentor, which reduces the risk of failure.

On the other hand, those schools which fail to achieve EQUIS accreditation receive detailed feedback. So EQUIS puts more onus on the school to prove its worth for accreditation, whilst then supporting it if it does not meet the required standard, and many schools are successful second time around.

Both systems require a process of continuous improvement. The AACSB approach is that accredited institutions are required to submit themselves to ongoing maintenance. EQUIS requires an annual progress report on specified areas for improvement from schools accredited for three years and feedback is given on whether the progress is satisfactory. Five-year accredited schools are required to submit for approval three development objectives for the next five years and then to write a mid-term progress report on which feedback is also given.

What is the value of accreditation?

There is no doubt that applying for accreditation from EQUIS or AACSB is time-consuming and costly, but what are the benefits?

  1. Differentiation from the competition. Because only a small proportion of the many business schools gain accreditation, to do so means automatic entry to an elite, which in turn adds to the school's brand value.
  2. The process: the fact that the school goes through a rigorous set of assessment criteria with which it needs to align itself, together with subjecting itself to self-assessment and peer review, makes for automatic improvement.
  3. There is what may be termed the "ripple effect" in that a successful school's competitors seek to improve themselves so that they too can gain accreditation (Cornuel and Urgel, 2009).

Lejeune and Vas (2009) quote research which indicates that AACSB can increase the administrative workload. They claim that their own research suggests that EQUIS standards do not have this effect, but instead promote an open culture. In AACSB's favour is its emphasis on student learning, which, Lejeune and Vas point out, may be of greater value to students than international links (2009). Both organizations emphasize continuous improvement.

Other forms of accreditation – programmes

While accreditation by EQUIS or AACSB may be the ultimate goal, some schools may just not be at the point where it is appropriate to go through this process. They may, for example, not have enough permanent faculty; still be working hard to improve some areas; or not yet be sufficiently "international" to qualify for full-scale EQUIS accreditation.

Such schools may find it useful to focus on a particular programme. EFMD runs its own Programme Accreditation System (EPAS), whilst the Association of MBAs accredits Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees.


EPAS was launched in 2005 and accredits a range of programmes at undergraduate, graduate (both general and specialist, and including "pre-Bologna qualifications") and doctorate level. Review concentrates on the selected programmes and only looks at institutional aspects in so far as they affect the programme.

The standards cover five main areas and are summarized below:

1. Institutional context

  • The institution must show an understanding of both the national and international contexts, including, where appropriate, the Bologna reforms.
  • It should be financially viable, and resourced and managed sufficiently well to be sustainable.
  • It should also have a commitment to international and corporate activities.
  • Faculty (whether permanent, adjunct, professional or visiting – note that there is no insistence on permanent faculty) should have sufficient expertise for the programmes under review, be research active and engaged in pedagogical innovation.

2. Programme design

  • The objectives should be in line with the strategic objectives of the organization and stakeholder needs; the programme should be aimed at the appropriate market and its promotion should be professional.
  • The intended learning outcomes should clearly state what the student should know and be able to do on graduating; the curriculum should incorporate international and corporate aspects and show awareness of social trends.
  • The programme should be appropriately delivered and rigorously assessed against achievement of the intended learning outcomes.

3. Programme delivery and operations

  • Entry requirements should be appropriate, and sufficiently rigorous, for the target market. The organization should be customer focused and have an induction process.
  • Pedagogy: students should have a high quality educational experience with use of a variety of pedagogical methods.
  • Students should be developed as rounded individuals.
  • Students should be exposed to a "culture of internationalization" with a mix of teaching faculty, students, and teaching materials.
  • Corporate links should be exploited.

4. Programme outcomes

  • Assessed work should be appropriate for the intended learning outcomes and the level of the degree.
  • Quality of graduates should be appropriate for the graduate profile and international norms, and students should have assistance with career placement.
  • There should be support and activities for alumni.
  • The programme should have an international reputation.

5. Quality assurance processes

  • Quality assurance for design and approval of programmes should be formal, effective and rigorous, with periodic review.

The process of accreditation is very similar to that for EQUIS, with the exception that the briefing visit following the application is substituted by a telephone conference. The whole process takes on average six to nine months.

Although more focused, the standards are applied rigorously, and success may be a benchmark for the school that it is ready to go for full-scale accreditation (Greensted, 2008).

For more details, see

Association of MBAs

The Association of MBAs ( describes itself as a member organization (of MBA students and graduates) which offers an accreditation service for MBAs, Doctorate of Business Administration, and Master in Business and Management degrees. Unlike EPAS, it does not accredit other types of business programme.

The Association of MBAs accredits programmes in their entirety, in all modes and including those which are co-delivered by a partnership organization. The following is a summary of its standards:

The institution

  • Does it support the MBA?
  • Does it have as appropriate mission, strategy, governance, finance?
  • Is it audited and is the audit acted on?
  • Are there mechanisms to secure feedback?
  • Does it have clear leadership?
  • Does the part of the institution that offers the programme have sufficient autonomy?
  • Are there adequate support resources, for example the library, career support, pastoral care, and an alumni association?


Faculty should be "appropriately qualified and credible" and it is expected that at least 75 per cent will have a postgraduate degree, probably a PhD. They should also be research active, and with business links and understanding. There should be sufficient teaching and administrative staff to resource and run the programme effectively.


Admissions procedure should be rigorous; applicants for an MBA should have appropriate work experience, and sufficient grasp of English; they should also have something to offer in group work.

Purpose and outcomes

This section looks at what an MBA is about, presumably on the expectation that the programme seeking accreditation will meet these requirements. Views of alumni, employers and sponsors will also be sought.


  • Nature and design – should be geared to strategic management and leadership; be rooted in theory whilst linked to practice; be generalist, although may be slanted to a specific area.
  • Knowledge, skills and understanding – coverage of the major areas of knowledge which underpin general management; should contain a practically based project.
  • Delivery and assessment – delivered by a range of methods, importance of group work. Assessment should be clear and comprehensive, with feedback.
  • Mode and duration – a range of possible modes, with duration expected to be one year's full time and two-years' part time.


This article has considered quality in business schools from a range of viewpoints: There are the quality standards set by external accrediting bodies, both for institutions and for programmes. Equally important, however, is the process that the school puts in place for its own system of quality management. This should be supported by senior management and pervade all aspects of the institution. Above all, the best way of ensuring quality is to go for quality enhancement, which means adding value to what is there already. In other words, never standing still – as is appropriate in our fast-moving world.


Cornuel, E. and Urgel, J. (2009), "The role of EPAS", Special Supplement: "EFMD programme accreditation – impact and development of EPAS", Global Focus, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 1-2.

EFMD (2010), EQUIS Brochure (EQUIS – European Quality Improvement System: The EFMD accreditation for international business schools), available at: [accessed 27 July 2010].

Elton, L. (2001), "Quality assurance through quality enhancement", Educational Developments, Vol. 2 No. 4, pp. 1-3.

Greensted, C. (2008), "Do business schools need formal quality assurance systems?", Global Focus, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 18-21.

Hodgkinson, M. and Brown, G. (2003), "Enhancing the quality of education: a case study and some emerging principles", Higher Education, Vol. 45 No. 3, pp. 337-352.

Hodgkinson, M. and Kelly, M. (2007), "Quality management and enhancement processes in UK business schools: a review", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 51 No. 1, pp. 77-91.

Lejeune, C. and Vas, A. (2009), "Organizational culture and effectiveness in business schools: a test of the accreditation impact", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 28 No. 8, pp. 728-741.