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The rise of ‘super scholarships’ that aim to turn out future world leaders signals a new front in a global war for the best students

March 3, 2016
Number one laurel wreath (illustration)

When he arrived at Stanford University to study for his MBA in 1962, Philip H. Knight was so shy that he “thought an extrovert was someone who looked at someone else’s shoes”.

Half a century on, Knight is telling the anecdote after donating $400 million (£285 million) to Stanford for a new scholarship programme that will be headed by its outgoing president, John L. Hennessy.

The university clearly proved to be a catalyst in Knight’s case, sparking an entrepreneurial spirit that led him to co-found Nike and made him one of the richest people in the US. Yet, speaking last week, he credited Stanford with conferring a surprisingly traditional academic virtue: “wisdom”.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars programme will seek to repeat the trick, with a total endowment of $750 million and an initial cohort of 100 international graduate students. Its goal – to turn them into future “world leaders” – may be grandiose, but Stanford is not the only player in this particular ballpark.

On the other side of the US, with its base in New York, Schwarzman Scholars is another new super scholarship, this one bankrolled by hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Schwarzman.

The scale of the philanthropy involved (Schwarzman gave $100 million), and the grand ambition to solve global problems through the selection and incubation of the world’s most promising graduates, aren’t the only things these programmes have in common.

Another is the focus on interdisciplinary thinking – on producing what Sir Nigel Thrift, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick who is leading the Schwarzman programme, calls great “generalists”. For Thrift, whom we interview in our features pages this week, this means studying across a broad range of topics, but also spending time in China (Schwarzman Scholars will be based at Tsinghua University in Beijing).

Hennessy, meanwhile, talks about leaders being “T-shaped thinkers”, who have “depth in a field, something they have mastered, but who have also developed the skills of collaboration and the ability to work with others outside of their discipline”.

There are other questions about the scope of these schemes. Some have queried the effectiveness of donating vast sums to what are already very rich institutions. And in any event, is it realistic for an academic course to set out with the aim of producing future world leaders?

Hennessy’s response is that while it would be wrong to tell anyone “you belong in politics”, it is not unreasonable to supply the “tools and knowledge for success…and a life of integrity”. For Thrift, scholarship schemes represent a significant plank in the future of an internationalised system, and “other countries will simply have to front up, because they’re all competing for the best students”.

For those outside the US, with its formidable culture of giving, this is a worrying prediction. But Hennessy believes that universities elsewhere will benefit in any event: “There are great universities around the world now,” he says. “We would hope to provide future leaders not just in government…but leaders of those universities in future, too.”

He adds that there is, in any case, an “endless stock of talented people”, and so plenty of future leaders to go round. If only the same could be said of alumni with $400 million to spare.

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