Harkness harnessed to US health policy

September 26, 1997

A CHANGE in the arrangements for Harkness fellowships are causing mid-Atlantic pique, confusion, and in some cases heart-felt grief.

The outstanding people selected for the award were funded to travel around the United States, absorbing the American way of life while they studied a wide range of social issues at various universities.

But the 1997/98 fellowships will be the last of their kind. The Commonwealth Fund in America, which controls the fellowships, has decided to concentrate on child care and welfare.

New Yorker Anna Harkness, widow of the founder of Standard Oil and descendent of a family from Lanarkshire, established the Commonwealth Fund early this century to be used for "the common good".

The fellowships were set up by her son who wanted to enhance the lives of those chosen. Originally the awards promoted United Kingdom/American relations. Later they were extended to the rest of Europe.

In 1990, the UK programme was redesigned to offer outstanding professionals working in health care, education and other social policy fields the opportunity to spend seven to 12 months studying in the US.

It sounds like an indulgence but those chosen have used the liberalism of the programme to learn, research, and to come back imbued with ideas for change in their own country.

Peter Brooke, former Tory education minister, was a recipient. Alistair Cooke, famous for his Letter from America on BBC Radio 4, was an early beneficiary. William Shawcross, the novelist; Hugo Young, the Guardian columnist; even Bamber Gascoigne of University Challenge, got some of their earliest exposures to American life with the fellowship. Harold Evans, once Sunday Times editor and now a major US publisher also benefitted.

David Bell, now the chief education officer at Newcastle University, was an assistant director when he went with his family on a Harkness fellowship. "I am desperately disappointed about the change they have made in the programme. It was unique. It gave a chance to people in mid-career to look at what they were doing.

"I visited 26 states in my time. I was given a travel allowance and encouraged to follow the themes of my research and just study throughout the US.

"I was looking at education reform. But you were encouraged to look at other things so I found an interest in urban regeneration and juvenile injustice.

"When I came back I could see similar issues developing here. But it was a two-way thing. People were often reluctant to see the benefits of running schools at site level, but I had experience of local management and I was asked to speak and was of some use.

Another Harkness fellow was Peter Scott, former editor of The THES and vice chancellor designate of Kingston University. He was among a group of some 20 people from Britain who went in the 1970s; mainly academics, but also civil servants, journalists, trades unionists and people working in local government.

"It was very decisive in shaping my views on higher education, particularly in combining a mass and high-quality higher education system, as I had seen how it worked in California," he said.

The directors of the fund are sensitive to criticism of the latest changes.

Magnus Linklater wrote last year that the Harkness vision had been "sacrificed to the gods of political correctness and the American domestic programme. Instead of cross-cultural fertilisation, the Harkness will in future be restricted to specialists in health care, who will be judged on whether they have anything to contribute to American programmes such as "Bettering the Health of Minority Americans" and "Advancing the Wellbeing of Elderly People". The changes rule out anything of more general interest, such as public management, criminal justice or even education. The Harkness concept has, in effect, died."

John Cragg, Commonwealth Fund's executive vice president and treasurer, disagrees. "The fund is one of only two in the US working on the policy front. We are trying to create a a truly international network with health policy researchers," he says.

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