How AACSB Schools Use the Positive Impact Rating

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Wednesday, September 6, 2023
By Katrin Muff, Thomas Dyllick
Photo by iStock/franckreporter
The PIR system now provides member schools with specialized data about how well they’re achieving their societal impact goals—and meeting Standard 9.
  • The Positive Impact Rating survey asks students how they perceive key aspects such as programs, culture, and engagement efforts at their schools. A new survey section allows AACSB members to add questions about societal impact.
  • Schools participating in PIR surveys are committed to shaping a sustainable future, educating responsible leaders, and creating community engagement. Focus areas vary by geographic region.
  • While schools can achieve the greatest societal impact by concentrating on external efforts that address pressing global issues, such an approach requires them to commit the most time and resources.

How do students at business schools around the world view their institutions in terms of creating societal impact? Do schools need to do more than offer programs that promote the public good? Are students’ impressions more favorable when schools offer programs that promote the public good? How can AACSB-member schools use student feedback to increase their societal impact efforts and support their accreditation efforts?

The 2023 edition of the Positive Impact Rating for Business Schools (PIR) seeks to answer these questions and more. Launched in 2019, the PIR is a system that rates each school’s governance, culture, programs, learning methods, student support programs, and levels of engagement. The PIR assessments are determined through surveys of an often neglected but powerful group of stakeholders: the school’s own students. Students can be outstanding allies to school leaders determined to bring about change.

Since the PIR system was launched, schools have used it to collect verified data for self-assessment, reporting, and accreditations. For instance, the PIR allows schools seeking accreditation to offer quantitative and qualitative data in areas such as strategic management, learner success, and societal impact.

It’s that last element that has gained increasing prominence since AACSB implemented a societal impact focus in its 2020 accreditation standards. Guiding Principle No. 2 spells out the association’s vision that “business education is a force for good in society,” while Standard 9 asks schools to demonstrate positive societal impact. In addition, AACSB has clarified and disseminated information about the societal impact topic at many conferences and in publications.

The two of us wondered if this strong focus might be having a positive effect on the PIR performance of AACSB-accredited schools—particularly since the 2023 edition of the survey offered institutions the option to add four AACSB-compatible questions related to engagement and societal impact. What do the numbers show?

Impact Performance

For the 2023 edition of the PIR, we had the input of a record-high 12,836 students from 71 schools located in 25 countries on five continents. Seventy percent of the schools that participated are AACSB-accredited, and 87 percent are signatories to the United Nations Principles for Management Education (PRME). Such a solid base in international accreditation and PRME membership highlights two strong pillars of PIR schools: a commitment to academic quality and an orientation toward positive impact.

For 2023, the overall PIR score for all rated schools is 7.7 on a scale of 1 to 10. However, there are significant geographic variances: Schools from emerging economies have average scores of 8.4, while schools from developed economies hover at 7.3.

AACSB-member schools show strong Positive Impact Rating performances, which might be an early sign that the association is having success in its efforts to promote the societal impact agenda.

This variance likely occurs because schools in emerging economies tend to be much closer to societal issues; they frequently are required to step in and help solve environmental or societal emergencies and challenges. In developed economies, this role often is assumed by a variety of civil society players.

The overall score for AACSB-accredited schools is 7.6. While that is slightly below the number for all schools, it is higher than the average for other accredited schools in developed economies, where the majority of AACSB schools are based. As evidenced by the examples below, many AACSB-member schools are embracing a societal impact focus. Their strong PIR performance might very well be an early sign that the association is having success in its efforts to promote the societal impact agenda.

Geographical Variances

Of the schools that participated in the 2023 PIR survey, 31 signed up to include the four additional questions, listed below, which were developed in collaboration with AACSB. Each school identified its chosen societal impact area, as required by Standard 9. The survey used this information to generate an additional tailor-made section for students to complete. Students answered the first three questions according to a 10-point Likert scale; the fourth was open-ended.

  • The strategy and culture of your school are effective in creating positive impact in the field of (the school’s focal area)?
  • Your program of study provides knowledge and develops skills to create positive impact in the field of (the school’s focal area)?
  • Students at your school are supported to actively engage in the field of (the school’s focal area)?
  • In reflecting about your school, what should it do to improve its impact in the field of (the school’s focal area)?

Once surveys were completed, schools received quantitative reports that showed how well they were performing on Standard 9 according to student perspectives.

Fourteen of the schools that chose this option were from Europe, nine from North America, six from Asia, and one each from Australia and Africa. That geographic spread is important because the focal areas that schools identified varied by region.

Schools from all regions want to provide responsible management education and often link their efforts to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, European schools tended to select topics related to shaping a more sustainable future, aiding a sustainable transition in business and the economy, or building a fairer and more sustainable society. By contrast, North American schools concentrated on reducing inequalities and developing responsible leaders. Asian schools emphasized creating community engagement, nurturing global citizens, and developing socially conscious managers.

Schools from all regions said they want to provide responsible management education. Many specified that their efforts are linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—particularly SDG 4, which calls for access to quality education.

Areas of Emphasis

When we do a deeper analysis of the focal areas chosen by the 31 AACSB-member schools, we see that they fall into five clusters:

  • Educating responsible leaders and managers (39 percent of respondents). Schools in this category identified areas such as “promoting ethics, responsibility, and sustainability” and “ensuring that students comprehend environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.” This focal area was selected by schools across all regions, including Wits Business School at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa; and Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City.
  • Committing to the SDGs (23 percent). Some schools identified broad focal areas such as “sustainable development,” while others pointed to narrower ones such as “sustainable development, digitalization, and globalization” or “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Kozminski University in Warsaw, Poland, and Monash Business School in Caulfield East, Australia, are two PIR schools in this cluster.
  • Shaping a sustainable future (16 percent). For schools in this group, topics included “building a fairer and more sustainable society” and “nurturing global citizens for a sustainable world.” Among the PIR participants seeking to create this kind of societal impact are Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain; the University of Exeter Business School in the U.K.; and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
  • Engaging with the local community (13 percent). Schools in this group identified goals such as “promoting responsible leadership in the community” and “engaging with the community through dedicated school programs.” This focal area is popular with Asian schools, including two from India: Goa Institute of Management in Sattari and Woxsen University School of Business in Hyderabad.
  • Achieving traditional economic goals (10 percent). The final cluster is made up of schools that have the broad objective of turning out graduates who positively contribute to the economic vitality of society. These schools prioritize internationalization or providing access to high-quality education.

An Analysis of Impact

When we scrutinize the focal areas that schools emphasize, we discover that the choices fall into a two-by-two matrix: internal or external goals, and general or specific concentrations. The graphic below shows schools what kinds of strategic options they have:

graphic showing the different kinds of societal impact schools can make if they take an internal or external focus, or a broad or a specific focus

Schools can achieve the highest impact by pursuing an external focus on broad societal issues, but this approach also requires them to commit the most time and resources.

The first dimension: Internal versus External. Schools choose an internal focus when they educate students to be responsible leaders, emphasize topics such as sustainability and ESG, and ensure diversity and inclusion among students and staff. They choose an external focus when they align their programs with the SDGs and other wide-ranging societal goals and when they choose to address local or global concerns. While an internal focus is certainly easier for schools to grasp and achieve, an external focus allows them to contribute to bigger and more challenging goals.

The second dimension: Specific versus General. Schools opt for a specific focus when they concentrate on one or two SDGs or articulate defined goals such as “nurturing global citizens for a sustainable world.” Schools take a general focus when they embrace all of the SDGs or identify broad goals such as addressing ethics, responsibility, and sustainability. Schools that take a more general approach might find it more challenging to devise impact strategies, marshal resources, and measure their results, but they potentially will generate a greater impact than schools that take a narrower approach.

When school leaders are deciding on their focal areas, they should align their choices with the competencies, resources, reach, and overall strategies of their individual institutions so their goals are both achievable and credible. If administrators use the PIR system to solicit student feedback, they can gauge how well their efforts are succeeding from the stakeholder point of view. The student perspective might also encourage school leaders to accelerate some of their projects.

A Dual-Value Proposition

Traditional rankings serve a single purpose: to measure and rank business schools against each other. But the PIR is designed to serve a dual purpose.

First, it provides a rating system, not just a ranking. The core survey organizes business schools according to five performance levels: beginning, emerging, progressing, transforming, and pioneering. (The PIR only publishes ratings for schools at the top three levels.) On each level, the schools are grouped alphabetically as a way to avoid meaningless precision. Add-on survey elements enable schools to outline their progress in key accreditations and reports, creating a systemic approach.

Second, the PIR acts as a tool that schools can use to measure continuous improvement in their societal impact efforts. It also allows schools to achieve better alignment in their strategic processes and improve their educational offerings.

Fresh insights from the 2023 PIR Report were debated at the PIR Global Summit in New York, where students from participating PIR schools led six roundtable discussions with school representatives. These discussions will continue over the coming months in different working groups. Two months after we introduced these PIR working groups, participants from 27 business schools had already registered.

PIR data represents a solid basis for both school leaders and engaged student organizations to define strategies to increase the positive impact of their schools. The AACSB-compatible questions allow members of the association to gain greater insights into how they can measure, improve, and report on their impact. For the current 2024 edition, the PIR system will add PRME-specific questions that will provide schools with quantified measures they can use in their Sharing Information on Progress reports.

The more data that schools collect, the more they can strenghten their strategies, adjust their efforts, and inspire greater positive change in the world.

Katrin Muff
Co-Founder and President of the Positive Impact Rating Association, Director of The Institute for Business Sustainability, and Professor of Practice at the Luiss Business School
Thomas Dyllick
Co-founder and Member of the Supervisory Board, Positive Impact Rating Association, and Professor Emeritus, University of St. Gallen
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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