Scholarships’ effect on social mobility is keenly felt in the Commonwealth

They can break down the financial and geographical barriers to higher education, advancing universities’ purpose to serve the common good, says Joanna Newman 

February 11, 2019

The recent visit to City, University of London by the Duchess of Sussex – her first engagement as the new patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities – was a meeting of minds.

With her track record in espousing the causes of gender equality, access to education and social mobility, the Duchess of Sussex will be a powerful amplifier of the work of the ACU’s members.

As a graduate herself, The Duchess of Sussex is well placed to understand the barriers to higher education.  When she addressed students at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji – one of the ACU’s 500 university members – during her tour of the region last October, she spoke passionately about her personal debt to scholarships that enabled her to attend university.

Today, 60 per cent of the Commonwealth’s 2.6 billion citizens are under the age of 30. In India, for example, one million people will turn 18 every month on average for the coming decade. For such a young demographic, access to higher education – either in students’ home nations or elsewhere – will shape society profoundly.

Across the Commonwealth, the ACU’s grants and networks support the work of universities, encourage institutional reforms and enable us to champion their contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Scholarships can contribute to social mobility by directly confronting the barriers to participation in higher education. This considerably strengthens universities’ ability to improve people’s lives and tackle challenges on a local, national and global level.

Among those who shared their experiences with the Duchess of Sussex last week were a number of beneficiaries of ACU-managed scholarship programmes that encourage students to cross continents and oceans to immerse themselves in their chosen field of study.

One such example was Caryn Thandi Petersen, a Commonwealth PhD Scholar from South Africa who studies women and gender at the University of Warwick. She plans to use her research background to speak directly to the roots of inequality – a great example of higher education’s power to change attitudes and build a better world.

Advancing global student mobility – to low and middle-income countries as well as more traditional study destinations – enables crucial research and supports the long-term vitality of higher education. On a practical level, the application of new skills can be transformative when students return home – for them as individuals and for their communities.

But there are also important cultural benefits. International education broadens students’ horizons, opening their eyes to important issues and new perspectives, and encouraging them to be drivers of positive change in their own communities.

Universities in developing countries benefit from being able to foster an international community, adding to the student experience and helping to seed change among domestic and international students alike.

Knowledge and skills do not have boundaries. One story perfectly encapsulates the power of scholarships to create lasting bonds across borders. Andrew Harvey, a former Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholar from Canada, studied linguistics at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. During his scholarship, he worked with a rural community to create the first written record of Gorwaa, an endangered language. He describes his story – and the value of scholarships – as one “of new and deep connections, forged between people and their nations”.

Participation in tertiary education is still determined by geography and funding, and it is vital that citizens of all countries are given the opportunity to further their studies in the fields in which their passions lie.

Take the story of Royronald Ongong’a, a student from Kenya who enrolled in a master’s in medical laboratory science at the University of Ghana thanks to a Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship. He is the first in his family to go to university and hopes to inspire his siblings to do the same.

By helping to establish clinical research laboratories, Royronald now aims to contribute to tackling infections such as HIV and Aids that have affected many in his family and the community where he grew up.

Whether it is through teaching, academic research or the successful application of clinical or technical skills, higher education has an unparalleled impact on communities around the world. Through scholarships, we can ensure that these opportunities are open to more young people – empowering everybody to make a difference. 

Joanna Newman is chief executive and secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

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