How accreditations can make business schools more responsible after COVID-19

Posted in: Education, Higher Education, Research

As we look ahead to the new academic year, the Business and Society blog is spotlighting The International Centre for Higher Education Management. Throughout the month of September, we'll feature research which looks at university leadership, management and policy. 

Here Professor Mathias Falkenstein asks how business schools can become more responsible in practice? Mathias reflects on his work with European business schools and his DBA research, and draws on a recent paper, co-authored with Professor Ulrich Hommel and Annie Snelson-Powell, to explain the increasing significance of the societal contribution these organizations must make.  He emphasizes the importance of the role of accreditations in supporting business schools to change.

Since graduating from Bath’s DBA in Higher Education Management in 2017, I co-founded the consulting firm, XOLAS, where we have worked with many European business schools on their plans to implement new strategies, with focus on sustainability and responsibility.  This topic has been important to business schools for many years, and people are now wondering to what extent business schools can make good their commitments in practice.

I began my research into this area on the DBA (supervised by Rajani Naidoo and Krista Bondy), producing a thesis entitled The Development of Responsible Management Education in European Business Schools: Responses to Accreditation Standards’. My research found that when schools face various stumbling blocks, such as internal and external resistance and resource constraints, when trying to address sustainability imperatives. Competing internal and external stakeholder interests, resource constraints, and global competition created an environment in which schools often decouple their (Responsible Management Education) talk from actions, simply not ‘walking their talk’. I continue to examine this topic and in my new role as Professor of Practice in Higher Education Management at Luiss Business School and with my clients at XOLAS.

COVID-19 has generated some change in business school behaviour.  A paper I recently published in the Journal of Global Responsibility, with Professor Ulrich Hommel, my co-founder at XOLAS,  and Annie Snelson-Powell, a Lecturer in Business and Society at the University of Bath, discusses the turbulence in the sector brought about by Covid-19 and the impact that has had on Responsible Management Education (RME) in business schools.

A key finding of our research is that accreditation providers have a crucial role in galvanising the prospects for business school change. We found that business schools, together with accreditations need to further cooperate to define a stronger sense of accountability. This will help the business school sector to evaluate those activities and measure the real relevance and impact they provide for the society at large. We looked at this relationship before the pandemic and explored the ways in which accreditations criteria weren’t always tightly connected to practices that promote responsibility in business schools.  In a chapter for the Sage Handbook on Responsibility in Management Education, Annie Snelson-Powell and I discussed the way in which accreditation criteria might be better designed to link more closely to practices that directly promote responsibility in the organisation. Accreditations have a strong impact on how business schools present themselves and how they prioritise ethics, responsibility, and sustainability in the curriculum. As such, they have significant influence and can direct the organisation’s activities and strategies and their ability to deliver on a social purpose more broadly.

Evolving pressures on business schools

As key actors in a civil society business schools are expected to provide solutions to societal challenges and to give back to the community in which they operate. In some cases, they need to promote business practices for an inclusive economy, in contexts where fierce competition, scarcity of resources, survival, and individualism coexist. Consequently, the schools find themselves in a strategic space between evolving reputational norms and a changing set of stakeholder expectations. Business schools are under increasing pressure to respond to societal needs, which means they need to exhibit a true commitment to responsibility and sustainability or face the loss of legitimacy.  This is particularly true in a post-pandemic context, where we’ve witnessed the capacity of business schools to make rapid change, namely in that they can deliver learning online.  However, this has made the sector more expansive than before – in that it’s accessible to more students but also involves more providers and stakeholders - making the new context more complex than ever.

New initiatives at business school accreditation providers, for positive impact and social purpose

In the field of business education, international quality assurance bodies, rankings and ratings can act as change agents and drive the transition towards more responsible management education. Accreditations such as EQUIS and AACSB play an important role. They often set the tone, define priorities, and guide changes in management education. For example, the EQUIS accreditation standards make strong references to Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability (ERS), providing guidance and accountability to business schools. The 2020 Standards for AACSB Business Accreditation has developed a section around Thought Leadership, with two standards dedicated to “Impact of Scholarship” and "Engagement that impacts Business and Society."

When looking at the new AACSB accreditation standards, schools are now required to describe how their curricula promote positive societal impact and well-being, for example:

  1. Strategic Management and InnovationAACSB asks: “how the school strategically intends to make a positive societal impact?
  2. Learner success. AACSB asks: “how the school’s curricula promote a positive societal impact?”
  3. Collaborate for impact. AACSB asks: “how school-supported activities (beyond research) demonstrate a positive societal impact?”

With this guidance and direction from accreditation bodies, we found that institutions are finding ways to better showcase their societal impact. Some business schools have started to transform their research culture in a way that stimulates the creation and dissemination of useful, impactful research.

After the pandemic, what’s next?

Our work in the Journal of Global Responsibility explores what comes next for business schools after the change caused by the pandemic. We propose that an opportunity exists as business schools emerge from crisis management mode, to take on a prominent role in the current discourse on social issues. This can enable them to overcome inertia and close the gap between business school promises and practices.  In particular we discuss how RME initiatives at accreditation bodies can promote more substantive action on this agenda:

  • firstly, by expanding the ways in which RME (and it’s impact) can be measured,
  • secondly, by linking the standards and the expected activities more explicitly to the Sustainable Development Goals (with support of other co-convenors such as the UN backed Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) reporting framework and the student-led Positive Impact Rating (PIR) initiative),
  • Finally, we propose changes to accreditation frameworks to ensure a multi-stakeholder assessment of RME performance, beyond the self-reporting methodology that currently predominates. Together these changes can encourage progress and to better embed RME in the business schools’ DNA.


Only by changing their own paradigms, will business schools be able to take further steps towards responsible management education. By doing so, they will continue being an important interface between business, government, and the society that demands this change.

Posted in: Education, Higher Education, Research


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