It's the prized badge of executive culture. The backbone of corporate business. But what is the Master of Business Administration degree really for?
Most new MBA graduates have a clear idea. A quick bound up the corporate ladder, a big hike in salary, or perhaps the chance to pass on their new- found expertise and confidence with a move into consultancy. A survey by the Association of MBAs this year showed that many UK MBAs had reported a 73 per cent pay rise after graduating, and the majority said their main motivation was to improve their chances of winning a top job.
But this isn't the rule everywhere. In Spain there's a very different sense of the role of the MBA, and one from which the UK perhaps has something to learn. The question needs to be asked: do MBA programmes create natural entrepreneurs, able and willing to contribute to the economy, or just corporate hippos, happy to remain submerged in corporate privilege?
The Spanish have taken on the torch of entrepreneurialism and are taking their role seriously, not only for their own country, but internationally.
An MBA in Spain involves preparing to start a business. At the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, for example, entrepreneurship is the central core of MBA programmes, largely in response to demand - three out of four application forms received stress the wish to become entrepreneurs at some stage, and 250 business plans every year are evaluated by its Department of Entrepreneurial Studies. In the last decade, more than 350 firms have been set up by Empresa students, and 10 per cent of alumni now manage their own businesses.
This is despite a national tradition of contempt for entrepreneurs in Spain, where until recently they were regarded with suspicion as people who just make money from others' hard work. Business school academics continue to appear in the Spanish mass media in an attempt to change this perception. Another serious obstacle which has also failed to quench this new enthusiasm is bureaucracy. A report last month from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that paperwork and regulations for a new business which would take half a day in the US, could involve 19 to 28 weeks in Spain. It will be the continuing wave of successful business start-ups which will ultimately break both of these long-established habits.
Spain is thinking big. An Entrepreneurship Centre is being set-up by the Instituto de Empresa to promote new businesses to governments world- wide, investors and other business schools, and to provide an information source on international markets and joint ventures. The aim is not only to provide support for businesses within Spain, but to act as an ambassador for entrepreneurship in the developing world. It already has strong links in the Americas, and in well-established capitalist economies, such as the US and the UK, that are dominated by large corporate business. The aim will be for the centre to be a storehouse of business plans from MBA students around the world, and details of international entrepreneurs willing to collaborate and discuss their experiences.
MBAs are important stakeholders in the economy of any country. They're in a powerful position, perfectly placed to drive success and also to benefit from the achievements of business. Clearly there's nothing wrong with providing the expertise and sharpness that help big UK businesses to compete with the rest of the world, but it's the small businesses, the innovative products and practices, where the future of lively, competitive economies lies, that will provide opportunities for society's wealth to be shared. An MBA should provide a set of tools, even a responsibility - a kind of burden of opportunity; it should not simply give entry to an exclusive club.
The writer is head of the Department of Entrepreneurial Studies, Instituto de Empresa.