Accreditation in the African Context: Quality Assurance or Neo-Colonialism?

BY Millard Arnold, May 3 2022


Quality Assurance or Neo-Colonialism?


Millard W. Arnold

Executive Director

South African Business Schools Association

1 June 2016

University of Witwatersrand Business School


I must say that it’s a pleasure to welcome our distinguished guests from England; I hope you treat us a little more kindly than did your cricket team when it last visited our shores.  Not only did they have a smashing win, but the Barmy Army sat in the bleachers adding insult to injure by taunting us with the reminder “we got 23 Rands to the pound; we got 23 Rands to the pound… we’re so rich is unbelievable, we’re so rich…”  I must say – however true – we were not amused.  But as you’re coming with initiatives, services and a plethora of ideas, I feel confident that this time around, we are going to enjoy this visit.


I had considered greeting you in all 11 official languages of South Africa, but given that I am hopeless with languages, I am certain to mangle them and do more harm than good, I thought discretion would be the better part of valour, and simply say “Good Evening, and we welcome you.”


And we indeed do welcome you.  As the South African Business Schools Association, we are proud to acknowledge that nearly 40 percent of our membership is AMBA accredited including the Wits Business School our host this evening.  It is with good reason that they are.  Accreditation is a certification of excellence and in the words of AMBA represents the “highest standard of achievement in postgraduate business education”


Andrew Main Wilson, the Chief Executive of AMBA, head of the delegation, and our guest this evening, has noted that accreditation is earned only by those schools that offer the best programmes possible.  In a relatively recent interview Andrew declared that “Our rigorous assessment criteria ensure that only highest calibre programmes which demonstrate the best standards in teaching, curriculum, and student interaction achieve AMBA accreditation.”


So it is a credit to what we have achieved here in the southern part of Africa, that so many of our business schools have attained international credibility and status, the consequence in no insignificant way, of their AMBA accreditation.


The principles and concepts that are at the core of AMBA’s value proposition is precisely what drive us as the South African Business Schools Association.  We are dedicated to applying our energies, talents and resources to the establishment of a vibrant, collaborative and collegial learning environment. We are committed to advancing the professional development of all members of the community, while striving towards a global reputation of excellence.  The fact that so many of our members are AMBA accredited is a tribute to the deans, directors, faculty, staff and students that constitutes SABSA’s membership.


SABSA comprises 18 members school each offering quality management education.  There is enormous diversity among the membership in terms of size, location, institutional status, degree of autonomy, age and history, academic strength, financial objectives and performance and international standing and orientation.  Despite the differences, and regardless of the criteria, various rankings and surveys reveal that South Africa’s business education has an exceptionally high international reputation. As an example, in the Financial Times’ 2015 rankings of the top 85 schools worldwide offering customised, executive education programmes, South Africa placed 4 schools in the prestigious rankings, more than any other country in the world apart from the United States, the United Kingdom and France.


Nick Segal, former dean at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business has remarked that “it is instructive to consider why, in terms of teaching, South African business schools punch above their weight relative to other countries’ schools.”  “The answer,” he goes on to say, “appears to lie in the strongly applied orientation of the curriculum.  In the USA and Western Europe and perhaps elsewhere, peer group pressure from other academic disciplines has led to a tendency to undertake increasingly theoretical research which in turn has led to a curriculum that is not firmly grounded in praxis[1].”


“By contrast,” he notes, “South African schools have always emphasised teaching rather than research, and what research has been done has itself tended to be applied. While their parent institutions and other academic departments typically see this as a weakness, it has actually been a source of distinctive strength in the business schools’ teaching capability.”


What is happening in South Africa is in sharp contrast with developments in the northern hemisphere.


Last year Fortune magazine published an article entitled “Are American Business Schools headed for a GM-like catastrophe?” In July, the Financial Times ran a story entitled “Business Schools become irrelevant.” Similarity, Business Insider from India led with the article, “Another sign that MBA degrees are losing their prestige.” Headlines abound such as: “Canada’s MBA problem: How business schools are fighting to stay relevant” or “Business Schools are their own worst enemies”, or “Why MBAs are becoming less important.”  All of this led Richard Lyons, Dean of the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley to confidently predict that within 10 years; fifty percent of the more than 14,000 business schools in the world will close their doors.


What is driving the storm according to Professor Ken Starkey and Dr Christophe Lejeune of Nottingham University Business School is a combination of factors including a cost crisis; changing labour markets, new technology; new competition such as for-profit providers, changing consumer expectations and global competition for students, for the best faculty and for space in academic journals.  It’s a perfect storm.


Faced with a combination of what the Economist calls “creative destruction”, business schools are being buffeted from pillar to post with a bewildering range of threats.  From Massive Open Online Courses  to businesses starting their own in-house “universities”, to the cutthroat pursuit of talented faculty, and above all else, a market which is  increasingly fragmented by new entrants, some from abroad and many local private providers, able to offer similar, but far less expensive services.


Against this backdrop of gloom and doom, it is fair to ask if the desperate situation confronting much of the more developed business school environments has any resonance in Africa.  Clearly Africa has a dearth of managerial expertise, but the continent is highly under served by quality institutions able to address that need.  So while theoretically true, the problems faced in Europe and America are not problems Africa faces.  The problems in the northern hemisphere are the classic problems of mature industries struggling with the need to recreate themselves. That is not to say that the issues in Africa are not severe.  Lack of resources,  understaffed faculties and a business model of limited duration, hampers the efforts in Africa, but the need is so great, and the approach far more attuned to what is realistic, means that Africa will not only whether the storm, but if prudent and visionary, could become an interesting case study on how to manage in difficult times.


It is precisely why it is worth paying attention to what is happening in South Africa.  “In our own experience,” says University of Stellenbosch marketing and stakeholder director Dr Mariekey (Marietjie) Theron-Wepener, “the demand for business education provided by business schools is definitely growing on the African continent.”


A more recent publication noted that “South Africa has re-occupied its place on the global stage, with the demand for broad-based management skills reaching record highs.”   It when on to observe that “local business schools are continuing to experience an unusually high number of applications, in keeping with a global trend that is making this field of study even more competitive, both from within the country’s borders and from the rest of Africa.  This is a continuation of a trend reported in 2014, where some schools noted an increase in MBA applications of up to 400%, with an expected increase of 20% year-on-year.”


The University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, which is currently accepting applications for the 2017 academic year, says that it has had such an increase in applications overall that it has had to introduce two application dates.  Segran Nair, the director of open academic programmes at GSB says the MBA, Executive MBA, MCom in development finance, MPhil in inclusive innovation, postgraduate diploma in management practice, and a PhD programme, are particularly sought-after.”


If these trends are accurate and reflective of what is happening across the board in South Africa, then the future of the MBA on the African continent is nothing but scintillating.


Yet, having said that, you have come at an interesting time.


You are no doubt aware that student unrest continues in South Africa.  The popularity, broad support and success of the “#fees must fall” campaign and the notion of “decolonizing universities” — whilst at the moment focuses on undergraduate programmes at public universities —  it nonetheless resonate across all spectrum of higher education including that of business schools.  Arguments have been continuously advanced, often by SABSA member schools, that there are fundamental issues around affordability and accessibility which business schools cannot persist in ignoring.  No challenge may be more daunting and profoundly transitional than the issues surrounding poverty, inequity and discrimination.


Ranjeni Munusamy, one or our more politically astute journalist, wrote that “the issues driving the student anger and rebellion go far beyond the unaffordability of higher education for poor black families.  It is having to slot into an education system that emulates the society we live in – a lack of transformation, the perpetuation of inequality and prejudice against the financially weak.”


It is clear to many in South Africa, students, faculty, politicians and activists alike, that the foundation of inequality is global capitalism.   Business schools are seen as being apologists for a system that is an oppressive remanence  of the colonial past, where “management and markets are assumed to be progressive forces, and trade unions and the state are presented as problems to be overcome.”  Those concerns express themselves in a belief that the curriculum and teaching methodology of South Africa’s business schools has a western orientation and fails to understand or address the peculiarities and complexities of the African business environment.


It is against this backdrop that business school programmes that are seen designed to meet principles of “quality” and “standards” – the hallmarks for which AMBA stands, are regarded by many as issues of neo-colonisation.  Whilst any review of AMBA’s criteria would find it difficult to support such a conclusion — indeed, the requirements for accreditation are aspirational and without ideological basis – the fact still remains, that the standards are pre-defined by an asymmetrical power relationship.  It supports the argument made by my colleague, Piet Naude, dean of the USB that from a historical and globalisation perspective, business schools in the West are regarded as the benchmarking, creating what he calls “a typical centre-periphery constellation where those in the centre – without specific intent – serve as a normative ideal and those on the periphery aspire to become like the centre”.  Ipso facto, to many, a neo-colonial arrangement.


Indeed, the entire issue of accreditation raises an even more fundamental question as to why it is that only business schools seem to require an imprimatur of quality and respectability, a need for  impartial, international accreditation, that others schools of say, engineering, law or medicine do not?


So please accept that for our member schools, and in particular, those that are AMBA accredited, these are enormous challenges times in which we face in a continuing search for balance between quality assurance and historical sensitivities.


Finally, given that I have the platform, it would be remiss of me not to raise a concern that plagues the AMBA accredited schools and that is the prohibitive costs associated with the AMBA programme.  The accreditation costs, annual fees, overseas business class tickets for evaluators, and a review process ever three years is simply incredibly expensive.  As one of our deans has mentioned, “one has to question the value of the exercise and the international recognition that it accords, when the cost to the business school is R500 million rands every three years.”   Think of what R500 million per school could do to resolve the issues of affordability and accessibility.


Needless to say — but I not only will say it, I have to say it —  this is an unsustainable proposition for our schools here in South Africa.  We will need to develop a collaborative, pragmatic approach to address this issue of sustainability so that we might take advantage of the long term opportunities that South Africa represents for AMBA.  The dynamics in Africa need to be appreciated.  This will require sensitivity to the issues the continent faces at the moment, something by your presence here this evening you recognise and understand.


Well, enough of the lecturing – we at SABSA deeply value the contribution that  AMBA accreditation has meant to the standards of excellence that South African business schools have thus far achieved.  We are mindful that AMBA focuses on high quality programmes that reflect changing trends and innovation in postgraduate management education.  Despite the challenges we face here in Africa, those concepts and principles will remain our ideals as well.


Enjoy your visit


Hambani kahle








[1] This has been the origin of recent suggestions that some business schools, especially in North America, are making less impact on management practice than they should.