Fulbright’s mission to foster empathy and dialogue is as urgent as ever

The post-war scheme is 75 years old this year, but global conditions still cry out for inclusive international collaboration initiatives, says Maria Balinska

October 19, 2023
A handshake, symbolising collaboration and exchange
Source: iStock

A few years after the end of the Second World War, Alan Pifer, a young American military veteran who had just finished a year at Cambridge, asked the US Embassy in London whether they had any work for him. As Pifer recalled many years later, “it was a miserable time to be in England. The winter of ’46 had been particularly tough and food was very scarce. However, I loved being in England.”

The embassy’s response was positive: they needed someone to help negotiate an agreement on binational education exchange with the UK, based on 1946 legislation introduced by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright to establish a global exchange programme. And so it was that, in September 1948, UK foreign secretary Ernest Bevin sat down with the US Embassy’s chargé d’affaires to sign the treaty that brought the US-UK Fulbright Commission into existence.

Launched after a brutal war in parallel with such internationalist institutions as the UN and the World Bank, the Fulbright Programme has from the outset aspired to more than furthering academic knowledge. At its heart is the promise of a better and more peaceful world through the empathy that immersion in another culture can cultivate and the international collaboration that education exchange can build.

Exactly three-quarters of a century later, there has probably never been a greater need for such programmes as social divisions, economic inequalities and international tensions affect ever greater numbers of people against a backdrop of post-pandemic economic malaise and climate change.

Thankfully, the Fulbright ecosystem itself is flourishing. There are now 49 binational Fulbright commissions, each with its own distinctive profile, making Fulbright the world’s single biggest exchange programme. The UK-US Fulbright Commission, for its part, is the only academic exchange programme to facilitate study, research and teaching in both directions across the Atlantic – and for every generation.

Our grants support students to do postgraduate courses as well as mid-career academics and professionals (including police officers) to do research or teaching. We sponsor bright American undergraduates who have never been abroad to come to themed summer schools. And we partner with UK social mobility charity the Sutton Trust to help high-achieving UK students from low-income families to explore the possibility of US undergraduate degrees and apply for comprehensive financial aid. More broadly, we are part of the EducationUSA network, providing advice for people in the UK interested in studying in the US.

Over the past 75 years, more than 25,000 people have undertaken one of these programmes. According to a recent survey, 94 per cent of alumni say theirs had a significant impact on their lives, from inspiring them to change careers to giving them a completely new understanding of their home countries and even introducing them to their future partners.

Our alumni include pioneers in their fields, from historian John Hope Franklin and poet Sylvia Plath to architect Richard Rogers and parasitologist William Campbell. We count 14 Nobel and 20 Pulitzer prize winners among “our Fulbrighters” as well as the current UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

Beyond individual achievements, the community of Fulbright researchers plays a leading role in addressing global challenges. According to independent analysis done by Elsevier to mark our 75th anniversary, 52 per cent of Fulbright scholars’ publications worldwide address topics relevant to one or more of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, compared with 36 per cent of academic publications overall. Papers by US-UK Fulbrighters are twice as likely to reflect collaboration with international colleagues than those of other researchers.

Collaboration is also a guiding principle for the way the commission itself operates. While the US and UK governments remain our single biggest funders, we have built a transatlantic network of partners and funders that includes the governments of Scotland and Wales, more than 50 US and UK universities, cultural and social institutions such as the British Library and the National Black Police Association, philanthropic foundations and corporate entities.

There is much to celebrate. But now is not the moment to rest on our laurels. The Fulbright mission to foster empathy and dialogue is as urgent as ever. That’s why we have committed to making Fulbright opportunities accessible and attractive to all talented individuals, irrespective of background and financial circumstance, and to support the Fulbright community to address the immense challenges we face as a planet.

Let me share three highlights of what this means concretely. First, thanks to a significant uplift in our annual allocation from the UK government and new partnerships with US universities, we are increasing the number of grants that fully cover the cost of a US master’s degree.

Second, with additional support from our binational government partners and foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have launched a new award that brings together pairs of US and UK teaching faculty to co-design and co-teach a virtual exchange programme for students at their universities. This will democratise global learning for the overwhelming majority of undergraduates who do not study abroad while, at the same time, fostering collaboration between our two higher education sectors. 

And, third, we are building a network of “Fulbright champions” across the UK higher education system to make sure such opportunities are promoted to students and faculty at universities that have hitherto been under-represented among our applicants.

One of our alumni puts it best: “Everyone should have such an experience. Would the world not be a far better, more tolerant place if they did?”

Maria Balinska is executive director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

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