It is incongruous that the number of British institutions offering MBA courses should have grown by 254% during a period when the economy has been sliding into deeper recession. Optimists, or those given to speedy assumptions - two groups with much in common, perhaps - might think it marvellous to have such a resource of business school graduates, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for the charge towards recovery. Alas, not so.
As readers may learn from A Degree of Uncertainty (p26), there is now much doubt about the value of the degree - not least among MBAs themselves, suffering as they are from the slings and arrows of recession and facing the prospect of shrinking management structures. What was taken some years ago as a ticket of certain admission to the quarterdeck, if not the bridge of UK industry, is now being exposed to the scrutiny of cost-conscious employers who seek can-do's rather than might-do's, and who feel that academia has not been sufficiently appreciative of the needs of industry or of employers' possible contribution.
It is curious, given the name of the degree, that there should be no league table for UK business schools, no unanimity about what the degree should encompass, no agreed system of accreditation. Shurely shomething wrong. One wonders where all the tutors for this massive infusion of business expertise came from? Why did all this mushrooming take place? Would companies that made large investments have been wiser to invest it on managers perched anxiously on their own internal ladders? The Institute of Management's 1992 survey, which revealed that 81% of managers thought they would be more effective if they received more training, suggests that this might be the case.
There is, too, the fact that training alone does not make successful managers. They need the inherent qualifications of character, a degree of self-subjugation, and above all, the ability to communicate and lead, more so now when empowerment is a buzzword that is at least generating genuflexions, if not total conviction.
One can easily think of people, some comparatively unlettered, who are now lauded captains of industry. We may, therefore, not need to be too concerned about the fall in applications for business school places, or even the doubt about MBAs. The proliferation and subsequent questioning may have been an inevitable evolution. If the Management Charter Initiative, now exploring the introduction of a senior management qualification, is successful, there will be a powerful corrective. We believe now (don't we?) that management is all about change.
One hopes there will be some of that in the relationship between management and science within industry, about which William Waldegrave is agonising on behalf of the Government and which (see Science in Crisis, p60) is overdue for attention.
No one doubts that we need more scientists and innovation to give us an edge in an increasingly competitive world. If scientists feel themselves undervalued and under-used, in industrial ghettoes, that is not a promising augury for the future. It seems we have to resolve these misapprehensions between science and industry. Above all, we have to make sure that management is not itself smug about its status, that it does not issue mission statements about communication without realising the essence of it is a dialogue. More empowerment. Let's go for it.