It's about the money... isn't it?

Salary matters, but it's not the biggest factor motivating students to enrol on an MBA, according to course directors

Career development and increased salary are the main reasons for doing an MBA; specialised MBAs are in big demand; and international MBAs are increasingly popular – true? Not so, according to a recent survey by Audencia Business School among 59 directors of MBA programmes. The survey claims that personal development is seen as the most important reason for taking an MBA according to 77 per cent of respondents; salary increase, often cited as a measure of success by the rankings, is rated highest by only 55 per cent.

The business networking website recently carried out a study on behalf of the University of Bath School of Management, which has more predictable findings. "Fifty-one per cent of the 150 students we surveyed said that career advancement was the main reason for doing the qualification," says Kate Jillings, director of the website. "Every month we interact with hundreds of MBA students and applicants through our site who tell us that salary and career progression are the major drivers."

Why were the responses among academics and students so different? Dianne Bevelander, associate dean for MBA programmes at Rotterdam School of Management, argues that candidates being interviewed for an MBA place are unlikely to say they're looking for big bucks. "While their original motivation may be about educating themselves they soon worry about the cost of the programme and how to repay it, and the need to get a good salary. Economic pressures including mortgage and family crowd in, though we find that after 10 years we get feedback that the most important thing is not a high salary but enjoying the job. Rankings, though, are the dominant motivation for schools by placing a continuing emphasis on salaries and career progression."

The 2011 Applicants Survey backs up the common perception about MBA motivation: 69 per cent of applicants put "improving career prospects" top of their list, while education ranked ninth with 32 per cent.

Just 16 per cent of the business schools in the Audencia survey offered specialised, or sector-specific, MBAs. Yet many others offer niche programmes – including wine marketing in Bordeaux, oil and gas at Aberdeen Business School and football management in Liverpool, though they have their critics. Professor Simon Stockley, head of the MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, says: "A specialised MBA is an oxymoron."

Chris Saunders, director of the full-time MBA programme at Lancaster University Management School, agrees. "The MBA has always been a programme to develop people for general leadership positions in senior management. It follows that you need to acquire broad knowledge by looking across the whole field of business rather than focusing on one area."

He suggests that smaller business schools should identify a niche market to make their name in a particular specialisation. "Often the move is driven by research interests in the school – it's a way of attracting people without having to take on the first-tier schools."

But there's a risk that a specialist MBA could close off your options for future career choices. Often students think they know where they want to go with an MBA, but after exposure to other options they change direction. Craig Danforth, director of sales at Gemological Institute of America, concedes this, but says that after a decade as a private banker he was determined to move to the luxury brand management sector. "My background in finance was irrelevant to my new career. Essec was the only business school offering an appropriate MBA in luxury brand management and it gave me practical experience in the luxury goods sector. Ten years on I'd always seriously consider a candidate with a specialised MBA that provides the savoir faire of our industry."

Leading business schools highlight the importance of international experience on an MBA, but the Audencia survey sample disagrees with this emphasis. Only 32 per cent of respondents believe the percentage of international students on an MBA programme should be 61 per cent or over.

"I'm surprised," says Professor Gianmario Verona, director of the full-time MBA at SDA Bocconi School of Management, where 84 per cent of students are international.

"I strongly believe that a modern MBA must be enriched with talent from every corner of the world. Creating barriers damages the quality of the programme. Today's students will be working in big multinationals, and must learn to deal with a variety of cultures."

Kundan Bhaduri, 29, has first-hand experience of this from his MBA programme at IE Business School, where more than 80 nationalities are represented. "Being in an international programme helps expand one's horizon, while learning about social intricacies and cultures," he says. "Little things matter, like how to accept business cards courteously in Japan, or what topics are forbidden in a Chinese corporate environment. One wrong move in a real job could be disastrous, so why not learn these skills at business school?"

The rankings have a knock-on effect for the international mix, says Professor Zahir Irani, head of Brunel Business School. "We have 95 per cent international students, many returning to Far Eastern countries where salaries are lower, so we're pitching against institutions whose graduates work in a high-salary environment. We're offering bursaries to home students to reduce the proportion of international students."

Nunzio Quacquarelli, founder and director of QS Consulting, points out that over 20 years European institutions have prioritised internationally diverse groups, with Insead, IMD and IE Business School among those taking more than 90 per cent of their students from overseas.

"The international diversity of European business schools is a chief point of attraction over top schools like Wharton and Harvard, which have just 35 per cent international students, and will protect them from the impact of the current European financial crisis," he says.

Clearly the findings of surveys are as diverse as the MBAs on offer.