Britain held out a financial lifeline to the Commonwealth's crisis-prone distance learning agency this week, with a pledge of financial support for a further year.
In her opening speech at the Commonwealth Ministers' conference in Botswana, Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, announced a further Pounds 350,000 of core funding for the Commonwealth of Learning, extending British commitment to the Vancouver-based agency up to 1999/2000 at the level set by the previous Government.
The announcement was a response to a plea by the Commonwealth to member countries for three-year pledges to ease its continued struggle for stable funding. It was designed to encourage other Commonwealth donor nations to ensure stability of the agency, which has had a troubled history since it was established by heads of government in 1987.
COL board chair Ian Macdonald emerged from the session confident of meeting a target of assured core funding of Can$5.65 million (Pounds 2.5 million) for each of the three years to March 2000.
Following Britain's lead, major donors including Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada and British Columbia maintained the level of donation, while there was an upsurge in the number and size of contributions from smaller countries such as Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia.
It was theoretically possible for Britain to stay its hand, pleading the government's ongoing review of public spending commitments, but ministers had wanted to encourage other potential donor countries to support COL.
Lady Blackstone said later: "We could have said 'nothing' ... we could have done nothing until that review had been completed. But the Department for International Development readily agreed this was something which was so important to do, given the importance of distance learning around the Commonwealth. We hope this money will be used to try to get programmes going in those countries where it is really difficult to ensure tertiary education."
As well as providing distance learning programmes in adult literacy and packages for teacher education, the COL hopes to establish a credit bank for the accreditation of prior learning across the Commonwealth.