ACU tipped to take over fee-waiver programme

August 14, 1998

Commonwealth ministers are determined to increase student exchanges. Elaine Carlton reports

It is a battle of international proportions and one that the education ministers of the Commonwealth are not prepared to lose.

In a bid to ensure that the number of Commonwealth exchanges keeps pace with those taking place worldwide, educational consultants have come up with an arsenal of fresh schemes and new programmes.

Joint masters degrees - developed in partnerships between Commonwealth countries, long distance learning programmes and shorter exchange schemes are all being considered. These new plans have been developed following an analysis last year that revealed that the number of non-Commonwealth students studying in countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia is rising far faster than the exchange of students within the Commonwealth.

Unesco data analysed for the Commonwealth Secretariat shows that the number of Commonwealth students carrying out their studies abroad increased by 4.6 per cent to 190,500 between 1994 and 1996, while the number of international students studying in the Commonwealth rose by 7.4 per cent to 108,300 in the same period. The exchange of Commonwealth students, however, rose by only 1.6 per cent to 83,700.

Terry Illsley, director of human capacity development at the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said: "A lot of the traditional modes of delivery, such as moving person A from place B to place C for their entire undergraduate or postgraduate degree, is no longer so appropriate because of the length of time people are away from their home country and the cost involved.

"Today there is a realisation that we have so much to benefit from different cultures and perspectives that it is worth going to another Commonwealth country for a short period of time."

One of the up and coming programmes which has been earmarked by ministers as a way of increasing the number of students pursuing their studies in other Commonwealth member states is CUSAC - the Commonwealth Universities and Study Abroad Consortium. Launched as a pilot scheme in 1993, CUSAC allows students to spend one or two terms in another Commonwealth country. Their fees are waived and they gain credit towards their degree back home.

CUSAC is a self-funding scheme set up by bilateral arrangements between the 45 universities in the pilot. It is managed by the Commonwealth Secretariat but there are plans to expand it and put it under the management of the ACU.

At this week's council meeting of the ACU in Ottawa, members are expected to vote in favour of taking over the management of CUSAC. In the five years since its creation, the scheme has enabled almost 300 students to study in other Commonwealth countries. Many of these exchanges have, however, been between students from developed countries and far fewer have taken place between students from developing countries.

Mr Illsley believes it is a lack of funding which has prevented more developing countries taking part. "There have been lots of North to North exchanges in the pilot but only seven out of 244 exchanges were between universities in the South, because even though the universities are prepared to waive fees the student still needs the airfare and a small amount to live on.

"This is where the ACU can help because we raise our funds through subscriptions and other private work. We will be able to put a six-figure fund behind CUSAC," said Mr Illsley.

"Fifty universities are already involved in the scheme but there are 480 members of the ACU and we will try to get all of them involved and increase the number of student flows within the Commonwealth."

The fund, which is expected to top Pounds 250,000, will go towards helping students with air fares and local accommodation.

However, CUSAC is not the only programme aimed at increasing the number of exchanges within the Commonwealth. The long-established Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan is being redeveloped after the number of new student awards offered fell by 20 per cent in 1996 to just 485.

Jeffrey Bost, chief programme officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat, said: "The number of awards is standing still or going down because this is the trend in government spending generally. Although several developing countries have revealed they would like to offer awards for the first time,financial stringencies have prevented them from doing so.

"Traditionally, Britain has offered almost half of all CSFP awards. The awards are usually given to particularly bright students to carry out their PhD studies in another Commonwealth country such as Britain, Australia, and Canada."

One response to the problem of decreasing funds has been to allocate a greater proportion of the awards to one-year master's courses. Other new types of awards the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission is now considering include: * Split doctorates involving a period of research and training in two universities.

* Sponsored scholarships and fellowships jointly funded by the Commission and a business enterprise.

* Joint taught master's programmes and teaching fellowships.

Mr Bost said: "A number of countries want to give awards but are not sure that long-term postgraduate research is the most appropriate. They feel that it could be better spent on a masters or PhD, which allow the student to learn research skills in the awarding country but carry out the research itself in their own."

Such new ideas have led the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission to consider a joint masters degree, which would encourage Commonwealth universities in different countries to develop separate units of the same degree, enabling the student to study in both institutions.

An example is the MSc in grain storage management and post-harvest horticulture, which has been designed as a split masters with five months tuition in Britain, at the University of Greenwich, and 19 months research in the student's home country. These fresh approaches from Britain have prompted new thinking among other Commonwealth institutions. The Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver is offering long-distance learning scholarships to Caribbean students who will be able to study for a Canadian degree by using specially designed materials and high-level communication technology. The pilot, announced late last year, allows Caribbean students to gain a degree from a Canadian university without having to leave home.

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