This year, in Moscow, the Association of MBAs (AMBA) will hold its ninth annual conference - the theme is post-graduate management education and developing the business leader. Alongside the discussions about leadership, however, some celebrating is in order: 2007 is a special year for AMBA - it is the organisation's 40th anniversary. In the space of just four decades, AMBA has grown from a small club of business school graduates to a global champion of business education and an assurer of post-graduate business and management programme quality.
AMBA started life in June 1967, with Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade Of Pale number one in the UK charts, the Summer of Love under way in San Francisco and the Vietnam war raging in south-east Asia. A small group of business graduates, eight with MBAs from the US and two from the first intake at London Business School (LBS), gathered in London to found the Business Graduates Association (BGA).
Although LBS and Manchester Business School were both founded in 1965, there was little interest in the MBA in the UK in the late 1960s. Initially, the BGA's intention was to promote the benefits of business education through five objectives: help the development of existing business schools; support the founding of new business schools; encourage employers to take on MBAs; help increase the numbers and quality of students attending business school; and advocate the importance of a professional business education in general.
David Rose, with an MBA from LBS, became an active member of the BGA in the mid-1970s. The UK economy was going through a tough period, he recalls, with the oil crisis, rampant inflation and a three-day week. "The idea of the MBA was still in its infancy in the UK," says Rose. "Industry was struggling to accept that it should employ graduates, let alone MBAs. I started looking after services to students, going to universities, talking about business schools and why people should go."
By the end of its first decade, the association had 1,900 members, but the next decade saw a shift in strategy. Today, AMBA is perhaps best known for its accreditation service (the other two main accreditation providers are EQUIS and AACSB). Initially, however, the service was developed more by chance than design, says Rose. The driver was a loan scheme negotiated by the BGA with City Bank, which offered 3% loans to MBA students from approved business schools. A standard bank loan was anywhere between 12% and 15%. Unsurprisingly, many of the newer business schools wanted their students to have access to the loans.
"About 1983, we began to get inquiries from the new business schools," says Rose. "The first were from the European School of Management Studies at Oxford, and Middlesex, Leicester and Kingston Polytechnics." Despite some initial reservations within the BGA about widening the pool of approved schools, Rose drew up some simple approval criteria. It soon became clear that there was a need for this quality assurance.
"You saw adverts in the Sunday business papers: 'MBA in two weeks - please send £1,000'," he says. "So from 1986 to 1987, we began to professionalise the process, with properly trained accreditation panels and a director of accreditation."
As well as a change in strategy, the association received an image makeover. Wolff Olins, the corporate identity specialists, was hired to redesign the logo and the letterhead. In October 1987, the organisation also had a new name, the Association of MBAs. Throughout the 1990s, AMBA continued to add members and accredit more programmes, including many outside the UK. The association, until then staffed by volunteers, also adopted a more professional structure, appointing a full-time head and management team.
Jeanette Purcell, the current chief executive, came on board in 2003, following a period of upheaval in the business education market in the aftermath of the dotcom boom and bust. "The MBA market was in a period of uncertainty and there were concerns about whether AMBA had a sound future by focusing on the MBA," says Purcell. "I took on the task of establishing what the association needed to focus on, where its future lay, what its priorities were; to make some tough decisions about what it would and wouldn't do."
The strategic appraisal that ensued revealed that AMBA was seen as independent and impartial. "In a complex and competitive environment, where there is a range of vested interests, AMBA's position as a neutral source of guidance, standards and information is very important," says Purcell.
It was also clear that AMBA was recognised as a gatekeeper of quality. "AMBA is best placed to be the source of authoritative information, guidance and advice on an international basis on MBA issues and throughout post-graduate business education," she says. "Our strategy is all about establishing that authoritative position."
Purcell identifies a number of issues likely to impact on business education over the next few years. One is globalisation: "Business schools need to ensure that they provide a truly global business education," she says. "They must produce business leaders who understand what it is like to operate in a global market, who have knowledge of different cultures, and can demonstrate the ability to work across trans-national boundaries."
There is also the increased proliferation and internationalisation of business education itself, and in particular the growth in India and China. In this context, MBA's quality assurance services are essential. "The AMBA kitemark is a sign of quality. In a market that is increasingly competitive, it is important that the consumer is presented with as much information as possible to aid them in making what can be a life-changing decision," says Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, dean of Instituto de Empresa business school in Madrid. "AMBA fulfils this through its accreditation services, its public events and continuous lobbying for the value of high-quality management education."
AMBA has already expanded its accreditation to include pre-experience masters. Specialist masters could well be next. Although there are no plans to include the executive education arena, Purcell does not rule it out. "We are about developing business leaders and executive education has a contribution to make," she says. "There is a favourable trend towards executive education. A tailored programme fulfils a need among employers for business education directly relevant to their business."
The number of schools with accredited programmes has jumped from 80 to 126, and Purcell expects the expansion to continue but in a sensible way. "Maintaining our uniqueness will be critical. The temptation will always be for us to go for the mass market and accept graduates from non-accredited programmes," she says. "That should be resisted. We must continue to promote the value of the qualification, raise awareness about the benefits that it brings to businesses and individuals, and protect the qualification through monitoring and maintaining standards."
- More than 8,000 members in over 60 countries
- Programmes accredited at 126 schools
- Services include: MBA fairs; MBA Handbook;
- a loan scheme; jobs portal MBA Careerworld;
- access to members' address book; Business
- Leadership Review, a quarterly management and education best practice
- The association's main source of funding comes from membership fees.