A Michelin-type business schools guide could be on the cards.
The US magazine Business Week publishes a well known annual ranking of American business schools. Does Britain need a similarly high profile assessment to help prospective students and employers - and the business schools themselves - distinguish between the golden and the leaden in management education and research?
Unequivocally yes, according to Clare Mouat, communications officer at the Diocese of Chelmsford and a prospective MBA student. 'When I was looking for a business school, all I had to go on was what friends and relatives told me about their experience,' she says. 'There was no independent evaluation, and what the business schools told you about themselves could be taken with a certain pinch of salt.' The academic community itself is not always so keen. London Business School's principal, George Bain, argues that magazine-style rankings 'tend to emphasise trivial differences. They reduce the assessment to what they can count rather than what really counts. Then the institutions themselves begin to play the game in order to achieve a high ranking, and the whole thing becomes trivialised.' On the other hand, Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, believes that British centres of management could be in favour of some form of assessment: 'Schools are not shy of assessment provided they have confidence in who carries it out.' The institutions listed in the ABS Directory of Business Schools 1995/6 have each been given a grading provided by the Higher Education Funding Council. This rates the quality both of research (graded 1 to 5) and of teaching (which may be 'excellent', 'satisfactory' or 'unsatisfactory', with the additional category of 'highly satisfactory' in Scotland). David Miles, dean of Kingston Business School, believes the assessments are valid. 'The research assessment is a hard standard to meet and a pretty good benchmark. I'm also very confident in the output from the teaching assessment. The HEFC sent eight lecturers/professors for our assessment. They spent five days here and attended 54 teaching sessions. It was a very rigorous procedure.' But Tom Cannon, chief executive of the Management Charter Initiative, is strongly critical of the methodology. 'The criteria used for measuring research are the same as those used for research in pure and social sciences. It means business school research will soon be jostling for a position in the British Journal of Obscurity. In addition, to ensure high research ratings, schools are simply employing big names from other institutions, which is creating something akin to a football transfer market.' Nevertheless he is not against assessment in principle: 'Anything which informs users and potential students is valuable.' Steve Harris, a London MBA and managing consultant at PA Consulting, thinks that the HEFC assessment 'is not finely graded enough to tell either student or employer anything useful ... There is a bewildering array of MBAs on offer and some are significantly less useful than others. We need something which provides a better grasp of what's on offer.' Slack himself accepts that 'There are more ways of assessing business schools than just research or teaching. There is also quality of resources, for example, staff qualifications, level of international recognition.' The ABS is currently exploring a system of MBA accreditation using a wider range of criteria. 'It could resemble a Michelin guide,' suggests Miles. In order to be included, a school would have to satisfy certain basic standards, then stars might be awarded in particular areas following independent assessment.
As far as some employers are concerned, the assessment debate is entirely academic. The strategy consultancy Bain & Co, for example, has its own criteria and few British business schools pass the test. 'We know what we are looking for, and our own ranking system suits us best,' says human resources manager Shirley Adams.