Leader: Common ground for engagement

August 29, 2003

The Commonwealth appears an anachronism to many people, part of the outmoded paraphernalia of postcolonialism, more redolent of the middle of the last century than the new millennium. When it does attract attention, it is judged on its lack of success in controlling rogue member states such as Zimbabwe. Just as the Commonwealth's ability to influence economic decisions, politics, even the arts, is open to question, universities in the developed and developing worlds face similar criticisms. Their relevance and privileges are questioned, while their achievements pass largely unremarked.

The two embattled institutions come together this week at the Association of Commonwealth Universities' conference in Belfast with the declared theme of engagement. That the Commonwealth's vice-chancellors and other university leaders should be gathering at Queen's is apposite - if ever a society needed coolheaded appraisal of its problems it is Northern Ireland's. Equally appropriate, Queen's vice-chancellor, Sir George Bain, epitomises engagement through his service on the Low Pay Commission and his later attempt to resolve the issues underlying the fire service dispute.

The ACU is one of the Commonwealth's success stories, spreading good management practices and building capacity in a sector of education belatedly recognised by the World Bank as a necessary component of sustained development. It acts too as the agent for postgraduate scholarship schemes that contribute to student mobility. Some initiatives by its affiliated universities are described in this issue of The THES.

Separately, the Commonwealth of Learning has emerged as a model for distance learning in the developing world, instrumental in the establishment of "virtual universities".

Inevitably, there are less creditable aspects of Commonwealth involvement in higher education. Despite a clear mandate from education ministers, it took seven years to make a reality of the Association of Commonwealth Studies as a network for like-minded researchers. But ministers failed to task any agency with its creation, and failed to provide any money to bankroll the process. Neither is student mobility approaching the levels its advocates would want. In October, Commonwealth education ministers meet in Edinburgh to review progress on the agenda set in Halifax three years ago. An insubstantial outcome will ensure that education slides even further down the awareness register when Commonwealth heads of government meet in Nigeria in December.

The ACU and CoL successes are built on an imperfect Commonwealth framework.

While the umbrella exists, they can thrive despite its protection. But if the wider Commonwealth fails the tests set for it in the wider world - Zimbabwe, global trade, regimes harmful to its weaker member states - they will be weakened by association, their ability to address deep divisions in our world diminished.

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