The MBA is without doubt the international postgraduate business programme. For just over a century it has been the passport to bigger, brighter and better-paid jobs for managers looking to boost their careers. In that time, the MBA sector has developed its own set of values and accepted truths. Salary hikes are the proof of a programme's success. In the US, an MBA should last 24 months as opposed to 12 months in Europe. A high international student intake is a must. But do such sweeping statements truly reflect the reality of the market?

For many, the main method of measuring the state of the MBA nation is to examine the rankings. It is difficult to imagine the world of MBAs without these annual league tables. Potential students use them as a rapid reference point for choosing a programme. Schools use them as a marketing tool and benchmark. Alumni use them as a gauge of how much their MBA is worth these days and firms bear them in mind when looking to recruit. However, rankings alone supply a statistical snapshot without leaving room for the subtleties that can really define the sector and give an insight into its true health. This sort of information is only available at the source, that is from those in the thick of the action running MBA programmes.

This first annual MBA survey, the fruit of a partnership between The Independent and Audencia Nantes School of Management, aims to complement rankings by presenting the views of MBA directors across the world. It brings together their views on the ideal MBA student profile, on the key considerations for a candidate, on variations such as e-learning and specialised programmes – and on a host of other aspects that define MBAs.

Just under 60 MBA heads worldwide answered a 21-question survey that gave them the assurance of complete anonymity to express themselves. That they did answer would suggest that the chance to put forward their views was one they welcomed. Rankings allow them visibility; but this survey gives them a voice.

This first set of results has already thrown up several surprises and casts doubt on a number of assumptions that were thought to be absolute MBA truths. But this year's survey will really come into its own from 2012. Because the aim of this initiative is to create an index that will reveal the major trends in the MBA market. By comparing answers from programme directors year-on-year, we will be able to trace the evolution of these courses with greater clarity.

In fact, we want to go further still. A survey carried out among MBA programme directors is interesting, but a survey carried out among MBA programme directors and MBA students, too, would be more interesting still. Such an approach would allow not just comparisons over time but also comparisons between those running and those studying the programmes. It is just such an approach that Audencia Nantes and The Independent hope to introduce from 2012.

This first survey is a start and already it has raised questions on key elements of an MBA. Answers show that a majority of European MBA directors would prefer to have a programme of more than 12 months. They also indicate that personal development is valued over salary increase as the main reason to go back to business school. And as for the ideal mix of foreign and home-based students within an international MBA intake, programme bosses have not produced the sort of consensus one might have expected.

The hope is that such insights will make this yearly survey a useful tool for all those who work or study in the MBA world – or who are gravitating towards it. Rather than challenging the logic of rankings, this supplement seeks to provide the sort of information that will help all involved to understand better what today's MBA is all about.