Scholarships have become fashionable in recent years. The Prime Minister placed them at the heart of his drive to attract more overseas students to the UK. George Soros, Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates lead the list of individuals to lend their names or resources to new programmes.
Scholarships also remain an integral part of international development policy, largely at the insistence of developing countries themselves.
For those charged with selecting recipients, this confidence in the importance of talented individuals is welcome. Increased resources, however, have come at a price. Scholarship schemes are under increasing scrutiny to ensure that they follow the objectives of sponsors and produce the required outcomes. The legislative environment is changing, too. In an age of anti-discrimination, data protection and freedom of information legislation, applicants have more rights than ever before.
In this context, an analysis of how selection decisions are made and how the processes can be improved (or at least made more defensible) is timely.
This book represents perhaps the most comprehensive attempt yet to inform this debate. While the focus is largely on US-based schemes, leading UK programmes are also included - Commonwealth, Gates, Marshall and Rhodes scholarships figure prominently.
After making the case for their study in a thought-provoking overview, the editors give way to four discrete but linked chapters that form the core of the book. In the first, Robert Sternberg and Elena Grigorenko seek to produce a model for selection that could be adopted by individual schemes - not necessarily because all should have the same selection criteria but to help prevent each from "reinventing the wheel". Their model is based on three features - wisdom, intelligence and creativity.
Stanley Heginbotham recognises the importance of these factors, while arguing that the development of standard tests will inevitably be open to "gaming" and thus be of limited long-term utility. He concentrates on seeking other measures for the same qualities and considers how these can be included at various stages in the selection process. The emphasis on processes is also taken further by Michele Lamont, in a chapter on the evaluation of scholarship programmes. Finally, Ted Youn and Karen Arnold - in an analysis of the subsequent careers of Rhodes scholars - remind us that, although predicting career paths remains an imprecise art, the Rhodes experience suggests that the odds can be reduced considerably.
None of this should be taken to support greater uniformity in the aims of scholarships. If anything, the text suggests a welcome increase in diversity. Recent programmes from the Ford Foundation and the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation have aggressively sought out previously excluded groups, while nearer to home almost a third of Commonwealth scholars now study by distance learning. Such innovations are important in ensuring that competitive scholarships are not confined to a narrow, and often privileged, group. The important point is not that all scholarship schemes should operate in the same way, but that they should employ methods that fit their respective objectives and can be justified to their stakeholders.
The final section, detailing opportunities for competitive scholarships, is of less practical use, with examples of information that are incomplete and out of date. This is excusable because the book does not claim to provide a directory of opportunities but to provoke debate among existing providers about how their operations can improve. In this aim, it certainly succeeds.
John Kirkland is deputy secretary general (development), Association of Commonwealth Universities.
The Lucky Few and the Worthy Many: Scholarship Competitions and the World's Future Leaders
Editor - Alice Stone Ilchman, Warren F. Ilchman and Mary Hale Tolar
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Pages - 256
Price - £28.95
ISBN - 0 253 34476 X