When the Financial Times published its most recent ranking of specialized master’s degree programs, seven of the top ten were French schools. This would be an impressive achievement for any country, but it was remarkable coming from a nation reputed to resist globalization and the adoption of the English language. While many reasons contributed to the increasing visibility of French schools, accreditation has been a key factor.
During the past ten years, French business schools have invested a significant amount of time and money into pursuing accreditation. In 1997, ESSEC in Paris became the first business school outside North America to obtain accreditation from AACSB International, while HEC Paris earned EFMD’s EQUIS accreditation. Later, HEC went on to earn accreditation from AACSB and the Association of MBAs (AMBA) as well. Several schools in France then followed suit.
It’s clear that French institutions have realized that accreditation will boost both their quality and their international reputations. They’ve also realized that accreditation offers extraordinary benefits, both as a means and an end.
One of the most marked benefits of accreditation is that it has greatly improved France’s market share of cross-border education. Ten years ago, France had a difficult time attracting international students. Across the world, fewer students were learning French as a foreign language; non-French-speaking students who wanted to study outside their own countries hesitated to come to France because they feared their lack of fluency in French would be a major handicap. In addition, many people viewed France’s economy as struggling, which made them less interested in traveling to France to study business.
At the same time, France’s older generation was firmly opposed to losing its “Frenchness.” In Paris in 2002, Edufrance (now Campus France) held a meeting to present its new catalog of programs taught in English. When the session was opened to questions, the director of one of the most prestigious French engineering schools instantly raised his hand. “Well, really!” he said disdainfully. “Should we be doing this? I believe in defending the French language and culture. Foreigners coming here should learn that first and then be taught in French while they are here.”
Clearly, France still had a long way to go. Fortunately, we’ve made progress.
Last November, The Economist printed data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showing how cross-border education statistics had shifted between 2000 and 2005. According to the OECD, French business schools increased their market share of cross-border education from 7.5 percent to 8.7 percent of world students. By contrast, Germany’s share of international education dropped from 10.3 percent to 9.5 percent. The U.S. market share dropped from 26.1 percent to 21.6 percent, and the U.K.’s dropped from 12.3 percent to 11.7 percent.
The rigor and transparency required in the accreditation process has helped French schools become a viable choice for students from other countries. A school that’s accredited has had its content and quality validated by an outside organization, so the accrediting bodies have actually streamlined the selection process for international students. Students also can use rankings to gauge a school’s quality. However, rankings are subject to large swings in position from year to year, whereas accreditation can offer students a long-term view of a school’s programs.
Many Other Benefits
While many French business schools originally sought accreditation for its perceived marketing advantage, they now appreciate it on multiple levels. First, accreditation brings extraordinary internal organizational benefits to the school and makes a positive impact on day-to-day operations.
Second, accreditation reassures students, parents, and potential employers that the institution is focused not only on student achievement, but also on providing an efficient, effective, and enriching learning environment.
Third, accreditation deepens stakeholder involvement in nearly every aspect of school life. For instance, in a country where students rarely evaluate professors, French business schools are now asking students to evaluate not only faculty, but the administration and infrastructure as well. Faculty and administrators adhere to high standards based on the latest research and professional practice, and “quality assurance” has become the organizing principle of accredited schools.
Accreditation has become so important and widely known that one French newspaper recently talked of “fatigue.” In effect, because accreditation has become so pervasive, the press now has the luxury of criticizing the very force that has driven improvements in the education system.
Despite all the advantages accreditation brings to a school, it is not easy to achieve—and that’s particularly true when a school is pursuing the designation from an organization outside its region. In particular, European schools face several obstacles when seeking AACSB accreditation.
Prior to 2003, one significant barrier revolved around AACSB’s standards for faculty recruitment and deployment. Those earlier standards required schools to employ a majority of research-oriented faculty and high percentages of doctorally qualified teachers; they also required schools to follow a very specific classification and reporting system. Most French institutions were built on the Grande Ecole model and ran their programs like professional vocational schools—which meant many faculty members were successful high-level practitioners. At the same time, French labor laws dissuaded schools from hiring large numbers of core faculty, or what would be comparable to tenure-track professors. Instead, schools relied heavily on pools of adjunct faculty.
For some European schools—particularly the second-tier schools fiercely competing to fill their classrooms—achieving accreditation has become a question of survival.
It was a welcome event when AACSB published its revised standards, purposely designed to be applicable to the global landscape of business education. These revisions allowed schools to pursue AACSB accreditation within the context of their unique missions and focuses. Nonetheless, AACSB accreditation remains out of reach for smaller schools with limited resources.
A second, related barrier is the difficulty many French institutions have in hiring faculty who are not only doctorally qualified, but able to teach in English. AACSB does not require schools to teach in English, but the competitive environment puts additional pressure on French schools to do so. In France, the market for faculty members with this profile is highly competitive, and starting salaries are out of reach for smaller schools with smaller endowments.
Schools that seek accreditation from organizations outside their region also need to jump cultural and language hurdles. For instance, a French school pursuing AACSB accreditation must have staff who fully understand the standards in English, can interpret them to fit the French model, and then can write self-assessment reports in English. To make sure that quality processes are understood and owned at all levels of the institution, many French schools have created new roles or restructured staff responsibilities. For example, at Grenoble Ecole de Management, the Centre for Quality and Institutional Development is dedicated to accreditation issues and employs both native English and French speakers.
For some European schools—particularly the second-tier schools fiercely competing to fill their classrooms—achieving accreditation has become a question of survival. Therefore, European schools continue to work hard to find middle ground between their traditions and the requirements for accreditation.
Despite the advances accreditation has made possible for French schools, it’s important to put the picture in perspective. International students still believe a degree from a U.S. school is a passport to wealth and success, and American schools still dominate the education market. For the past five years, Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Higher Education has produced its Academic Ranking of World Universities, which takes into account factors such as faculty who have won Nobel Prizes or produced highly cited research. In the 2007 ranking, 17 of the top 20 schools were from the U.S.
French schools were woefully absent from this list, although three of them appeared in the top 100. Business schools don’t greatly influence rankings because they educate only a small percentage of the population. Of the 2.3 million students pursuing higher education in France, only 88,000 are studying business. In addition, masters programs are a niche market in the education system. The Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking serves as a reminder that French universities still must work hard to become top global players.
The good news is that French business schools have shown that they can compete with the best in the world. Maintenance of accreditation requirements mean that schools must frequently undergo self-reflection and peer review. This will ensure that French schools continue to adhere to rigorous standards—and continue to improve—in areas such as administration, instructional resources, faculty, physical facilities, student recruitment, and the curriculum.
French business needs strong French business schools. In particular, the French employment market needs managers capable of working abroad. France boasts that it draws 80 percent of its income from companies on the CAC 40, a weighted index of the French stock market that includes many international companies. France also needs foreign students who have graduated from its schools to help its multinational companies succeed beyond the country’s borders. These facts have motivated many French institutions to do the work necessary to upgrade their schools, prove their quality—and achieve accreditation.
Julie Perrin-Halot is head of the Centre for Quality & Institutional Development at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France. Mark Thomas is the school’s director of international affairs.