Commonwealth scholarships have been building international links and boosting the intellectual resources of developing nations for almost half a century. Trudy Harpham and John Kirkland explain
These are exciting times for international scholarships. Donor agencies have realised that skilled people are as important to developing countries as they are to developed ones. Governments see the value of study abroad for international relations. Universities see scholarships as a way to attract talent and promote their names more widely. Philanthropists see their value in advancing a range of causes.
The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, instigated by Commonwealth education ministers in 1959, is nearing its 50th birthday. It has endured the ups and downs of government policies to become one of the world's largest, most prestigious schemes, with more than 24,000 former award-holders.
Central to the plan's success has been the ability to embrace change.
Distance-learning scholarships now account for more than a third of awards made by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK. Short-term fellowships offer opportunities for mid-career professionals, while split-site awards offer the opportunity for a collaboration between developed and developing country universities.
Commonwealth scholarships have always involved a degree of partnership between the home and the host country. An agency in the home country typically nominates candidates, then the host nation makes final selections and funds the award. The emphasis on academic excellence is combined with the need to advance development objectives. From inception, the awards were meant to be applied for the benefit of the home country.
Reciprocity is another key principle. Although the UK has maintained its commitment to fund the majority of awards since 1959, more than 20 countries have hosted scholarships. The number fell in the 1990s as Australia withdrew from the plan, Nigeria was expelled and Hong Kong left the Commonwealth. By 1999, the number had dropped to six. Since then, it has more than doubled. Brunei and Malaysia are now established hosts. Malta announced its intention to offer scholarships at the education ministers'
conference in 2004, and it has recruited its first award-holder.
Commonwealth scholars from other African countries have held scholarships at the universities of Botswana and Mauritius. The first Commonwealth scholar in South Africa since 1961 is completing her qualification at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (see sidebar), and negotiations are under way for the first British scholar in 30 years to take up an award in Ghana. New Zealand will increase the number of scholarships this year. Canada is the second largest donor, and India, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago provide regular support.
The most impressive part of the story, however, is that told by the former award-holders themselves. Surveys conducted in recent years by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and by the Association of Commonwealth Universities show that not only do the overwhelming majority of award-holders return home, but that they they also rise to positions of influence and seniority. Most work in the public sector, with higher education the biggest beneficiary. Many have a role in development through non-governmental organisations, international bodies or voluntary activity.
These stories were brought together in 2003 with publication of the first alumni directory.
The 16th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in December will shape the plan's future. Under discussion will be the continuing balance between conventional and new forms of delivery, and the relationship between academic quality and development impact.
Attention will also be devoted to the need for more awards in developing countries, whether held by "Northern" students or as part of "South-South"
relationships. This is an area in which the partnership philosophy is particularly well suited to help. Ministers will also be asked to approve a clear agenda to take the plan to its 50th anniversary in 2009. In the next six months, the higher education community can play an important role in shaping these recommendations.
If the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan is to maintain the impressive record of the past five decades, then the more creative thinking that is employed, the better.
Trudy Harpham is chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. John Kirkland is deputy secretary-general (development) of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
High returns - 'I am now able to do advanced research in my field, and I can help colleagues and students in research and writing reports'
Bangladeshi academic Ayub Hossain - a specialist in food-drying technology - spent a year at Newcastle University handling some very hot stuff indeed.
"I did some laboratory-based experiments and computer modelling on solar drying of chillis during my stay in the UK," he says.
Now he is spending a year at the Leibniz-Institut fur Agrartechnik in Potsdam, Germany. He believes that the opportunity opened up to him because of his Commonwealth scholarship.
He took up his scholarship - a split-site doctoral - in September 2001.
"I got excellent laboratory, library and internet facilities. I also received full co-operation from the academic supervisor and laboratory staff and quick and adequate logistic support," Hossain says.
"The pleasant environment and co-operation enriched my academic knowledge and social outlook substantially.
"I am now able to do advanced research in my field. Also, I can help colleagues and students in research and writing scientific reports.
"As a result, my institute in Bangladesh has allowed me to take up a one-year Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship in Germany.
"With the acquired knowledge and experience, I tried to develop suitable drying technology for the rural people of Bangladesh. This technology is helpful for reducing post-harvest losses of perishable food products and also to increase the income of rural people," he says.
Hossain would like the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission to encourage more split-site programmes and to arrange workshops where former scholars can share their experiences.
'My eyes have been opened to what development actually means'
Anna Marriott (pictured), a -year-old graduate of Leeds University, was searching for study opportunities in a developing country when she landed the first Commonwealth scholarship to South Africa since 1961.
"I wanted to get more primary experience of development," she says. After getting a first in international development, she worked in Africa for a UK youth-focused non-governmental organisation operating in Uganda. Later, while in a research-oriented job at Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies, she began to yearn for more time in the field.
After winning a Commonwealth scholarship to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Marriott took the taught masters programme at the School of Development Studies.
Marriott has strong interests in gender, poverty and informal employment, so for her thesis she looked at conditions in informal small-scale mines in South Africa - one of which was worked almost exclusively by women.
"South Africa has some very progressive policies but problems with implementation," she says. "My eyes have been opened to what development means, and the many challenges involved - far more than would have been the case in the UK."
Marriott hopes to spend time in East Africa working as a volunteer on the food shortage problem and then for the Department for International Development when she is back in the UK.