More cooperation a must for developing countries

June 30, 2000

Commonwealth governments should give priority to ways of promoting student mobility that will lead to more higher education cooperation between developing countries, the report says in its main recommendation.

Specifically, it says the Commonwealth should move to reach the full target of 2,000 awards under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP) and broaden the donor base for awards.

The CSFP emerged from the first Commonwealth education conference at Oxford in 1959. At subsequent conferences, ministers have regularly reviewed student mobility and sought to promote it. "This has been true right up to their most recent, 13th conference in Gaborone (Botswana), when ministers deplored the fact that so few of the Commonwealth's 54 countries were senders or receivers of students on any significant scale and noted that lack of finance was the principal deterrent to student interchange between member countries."

The report highlights a degree of hypocrisy among developing countries, which complained at the sudden introduction of full-cost fees for Commonwealth students in the richer host countries while applying differential fees themselves, and which failed to support Commonwealth mobility programmes. Only four or five developing Commonwealth countries contribute to the CFSP, the report says. Most have not taken the opportunity to develop South-South exchanges through the plan, even though the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation has been prepared to underwrite much of the cost of instituting such awards.

Some governments have welcomed study abroad because it means they do not have to provide expensive facilities at home. Until recently, one such case was Cyprus, which even now has as many of its students studying in other countries as at its own institutions. In Malaysia, private study abroad was readily condoned for non-Malays, partly because it freed the government to concentrate resources on the Malay population at home and abroad through scholarships.

Most countries have welcomed opportunities for their citizens to study abroad, though many, such as India, make would-be students apply for foreign exchange, which is granted only if their studies are in priority fields. The brain drain is potentially seriously damaging to poor countries - recent estimates suggest that three-quarters of Indians, whose earlier studies will have been subsidised by India, do not return from studies abroad. Their fees, although paid from private funds, involve foreign exchange that India could use for other purposes. "Industrialised countries (are) all too ready to plunder skilled human resources from developing countries; granting visas and work permits to highly qualified personnel but throwing up barriers to unskilled migrants."

Financial difficulties are the biggest constraint on the expansion of student mobility. The depreciation of developing-country currencies against the dollar and the pound have increased the cost of study abroad and made the problem worse.

"There have not been the same enthusiasm and resources invested in programmes of Commonwealth interchange as are to be found in the relatively well publicised and funded Socrates/ Erasmus programme of the European Union," the report says.

"There is no sign that a Commonwealth programme of this kind could be initiated, partly because the Commonwealth institutions' central budgets are extremely small compared with those of the European Union."

Several countries traditionally thought of as senders are beginning to take an interest in attracting students from abroad. India has long been a significant host for countries such as Kenya. More recently, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa have said they intend to attract more international students. "Because of their price advantage, they and other Commonwealth developing countries are potentially keen competitors of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. This offers the welcome prospect that, over time, Commonwealth student mobility could become better balanced than at present."

The working group suggested a forum for the exchange of information on good practice and as a channel through which practical help and advice from bodies such as the British Council, Ukcosa, the Canadian Bureau of International Education and IDP Education Australia could flow to countries ranked low on the human development index that are seeking to develop their infrastructure for welcoming and hosting students from abroad.

  Commonwealth faces new century's challenge

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