A capital case for indulging in foreign affairs

March 31, 2006

The University of London has played host to Commonwealth scholars who have gone on to illustrious careers in their home countries, writes Graeme Davies

The University of London and the Association of Commonwealth Universities have historically enjoyed strong links and have benefited equally from their relationship. This has come about mainly because of the special position of the external programme that the university has run for some 150 years, allowing academic institutions outside the capital to prepare students for a London degree.

In the UK and abroad, there are well-established universities whose origins lie within this arena. For many years, they did not award their own degrees, but as they developed and matured, they became universities in their own right with degree-awarding powers. For example, Exeter, Leicester, Southampton and Nottingham universities developed this way.

Across the Commonwealth in Africa, in the Americas and in Asia, there are other institutions - the universities of the West Indies, Makerere in Uganda and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to name but three - that have similar origins. Today, London's external programme provides educational opportunities for more than 35,000 students in 180 countries, many of which are part of the Commonwealth.

London, with its eight large multi-faculty and 12 smaller specialist colleges, has for many years attracted students from the Commonwealth, especially those committed to pursuing postgraduate and research degree programmes. Many of them have, after graduation, become academic, professional and political leaders in their own countries. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, K. R. Narayanan, former President of India, and P. J.

Patterson, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Jamaica, all spring to mind. This is particularly true of the London School of Economics, which is almost a household name across the Commonwealth.

The ACU binds together the contacts that students and staff at university in London have with their Commonwealth partners. Senior members of the university have played a strong part in both the governance and the promotion of the ACU over the years.

Another vital aspect of the university's Commonwealth-related activities is its support for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICS). This has a national and international reputation and forms part of London's School of Advanced Study. The purpose of the ICS is to promote interdisciplinary and inter-regional research on the Commonwealth and its member nations in the fields of history, politics, economics and other social sciences, and in subjects such as development, environment, health, migration, class, race and literature.

The ICS also attracts many visiting scholars because its library is a valuable international resource. It contains more than 160,000 items with particularly impressive Caribbean, southern African and Australian holdings as well as more than 200 archival collections.

Governance is another area of real involvement with ACU member universities. Because of the way in which universities across the Commonwealth have developed, the majority have structures that reflect those of theUK's unitary universities, such as the colleges of the University of London.

The ACU universities have governing councils, academic boards or senates, degree programmes and assessment procedures, all of which can be recognised by any academic familiar with UK higher education. Thus, it is both practical and helpful for the varied academic communities to share experience and best practice in order to enhance their effectiveness and efficiency.

There is an impressive record of fruitful collaboration between London and the universities of the Commonwealth. Academic and administrative leaders have benefited from exchange programmes and shared initiatives, many of which have been conducted under the auspices of the ACU.

London has certainly valued its Commonwealth connections over the years, and the university regards the continuing development and enhancement of these contacts as an important part of its future strategic landscape.

Through participation in events such as the ACU conferences, these strategic goals can be advanced to the benefit of all concerned.

Sir Graeme Davies is vice-chancellor of the University of London.


High returns -  'Living overseas taught me to be adaptable and sensitive to other cultures' Australian development specialist Natacha Emerson rates her year at the London School of Economics as "an unforgettable experience", but she sees the opportunity as far more than personal enrichment. Now back in Australia after completing an MSc in development management, she is working with the Australian Agency for International Development.

"As a Commonwealth scholar, I had the privilege of undertaking tertiary studies at an internationally renowned university where I engaged with future world leaders and prominent academics. This potent exposure strengthened my ability to think strategically and broadened my perspective on issues in international debate.

"Living overseas enhanced my self-confidence in terms of operating in a foreign setting, taught me to be adaptable and to have greater sensitivity towards other cultures.

"Given that my expertise is in international development and humanitarian aid, my postgraduate degree and the contacts I developed as a Commonwealth scholar influence my work in assisting other Commonwealth countries with their own social and economic development.

"I had an unforgettable experience and continue to benefit from the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan's vast networks.

"The scheme encourages tertiary study in the fields of international development and human rights to build capacity within Commonwealth institutions to provide courses in these areas. The Commonwealth also plays a crucial role in building the human resource capacity of its developing countries through scholarships, thus assisting individuals to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to help their home country or less developed Commonwealth countries."

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