THE Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) is the world's most popular business qualification. It is recognised in every country in the world. Furthermore, it often brings increased salaries and improved promotion prospects, according to the authoritative Which MBA ? guide published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Yet, the guide also states: ''Despite the huge publicity the MBA has attracted in recent years, there is no real consensus about what it is, what it is supposed to achieve for those who study for it and those organisations who hire degree holders, or where its future direction lies.'' The MBA is under pressure from all directions: from the companies which are questioning its value; from the students, now unsure about its career-enhancing abilities; and even from the business schools themselves, as they debate the way forward. The MBA, developed in the United States, was originally a full-time, two-year postgraduate university programme, comparable with law or medicine. It now comes in a range of flexible formats lasting anything from 10 months to five years. The study can be either full-time, part-time, modular, consortium, company or distance learning. Which MBA? says: ''[An MBA] prepares individuals for a job as a manager. It is complementary to previous experience and education; it never replaces anything, but rather builds on it. ''It is strongly business oriented towards practical management.'' Dr Chuck Armitage, executive director of the Poon Kam Kai Institute of Management at Hongkong University, said: ''The MBA began as the need for fully professional business managers emerged around the turn of the century. ''It provided them with a clear set of core skills, in accountancy, finance, economics and marketing.'' While the scale of most businesses remained small, the influence of the MBA-qualified manager was limited, but a real change in attitudes followed World War II. ''As the corporations grew, and individual managers seemed to be overwhelmed, companies turned more readily to the specialist business schools,'' said Dr Armitage. ''It was at this time, too, that the distinctive European style of MBA was developed. The principal difference was that the US business schools sought out the best academic thinkers and took them in, straight after their first degrees. ''The Europeans put more emphasis on work experience as a prerequisite to joining the course,'' he said. The end result was that, within a common structural framework, the Americans tended towards a strongly analytical approach, while the Europeans favoured a more explicit, problem-solving style. ''In both cases however, the goal was to foster the ability to take an overall view, while also having functional specialisations in one or more of a list, including production, marketing, finance, and human resource management,'' said Dr Armitage. The long-term development of MBAs took a crucial turn in the 1970s when university funding began to be squeezed. The commercial possibilities of marketing these expensive and prestigious courses more widely appealed to the universities as a means to make up the shortfall in their incomes. This also meant that although the same total of hours were spent studying the same courses followed, there were important differences. The elongated courses helped to reduce some of the immediacy and the pressurised aspects of business administration. There was also less library time for the students, and a less effective interaction with each other and with the teaching staff. The positive side of the part-time model was that the businessmen and women on the course were involved each day in the real thing. A second development was the distance-learning course. Based on self-study, with occasional compulsory weekend seminars, these ranged from the good to the utterly cynical. ''At the extreme, some distance learning course amounted to little more than sending in a cheque in return for a certificate,'' said Dr Armitage.