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International business schools and the search for quality

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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:

  • EQUIS:
  • AACSB:
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

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.