Betrayal of old friendships

June 30, 1995

When Britain joined the then Common Market 22 years ago the Commonwealth connection featured heavily. Supporters of United Kingdom membership argued that it would make the Community more outward looking while bringing tangible benefits to Commonwealth partner countries through access to more resources for aid and to a wider market.

While the jury is still conspicuously out on the wider issues of European Union membership there is no doubt that ever since higher education's links with the Commonwealth have been in decline. The balance of student mobility has shifted inexorably from the traditional Commonwealth sending countries in favour of Europe.

Academically the Commonwealth has become increasingly overshadowed by Europe. The new national curriculum makes only a fleeting reference and in higher education, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the Commonwealth secretary general, has become so concerned at the dearth of opportunities for students to follow courses with a Commonwealth focus that he has set up a commission headed by Thomas Symons, founding president of Trent University, Ontario, to report urgently on the state of Commonwealth studies.

It is then no wonder that a report from a working party set up by the Council for Education in the Commonwealth should conclude that educationally Commonwealth countries have lost out from British membership of the EU.

Six years after joining the European Community, Commonwealth students accounted for more than half the overseas students in Britain. Barely 20 years later, they comprised only 35 per cent, while the proportion of EU students rose over the same period from 13 per cent to 34 per cent. In 1993 EU students in the UK outnumbered Commonwealth students for the first time, and by the following year considerably outstripped them.

While overseas students remain big business for Britain's universities, EU students offer no greater financial incentive than home students. The smaller proportion of students from the Commonwealth studying in the UK have however to pay the full cost fee. Initial agonising over the introduction of full-cost fees has been overtaken by the desire to maximise sources of revenue - and barely to consider the ethical implications.

In 1994/95, 11,000 Commonwealth students studied in Britain on Foreign Office scholarships at a cost of nearly Pounds 100 million. Most of the money (about Pounds 80 million) came from the Overseas Development Administration and Baroness Chalker, the overseas aid minister, is anxious that the progress of students and scholars should be better tracked to discover how their British education contributed to their success at home. But the working party claims that the scholarship programe is being cut in real terms and that Commonwealth education programmes receive less assistance if aid from Britain and other donors is channelled through the EU. This disadvantage is likely to grow because of the 1992 commitment to increase the Community aid programme and the Government's intention to reduce the real value of its total aid budget. Predictions that two-thirds of British aid will be multilateral by the end of the decade filled the working party with horror. "Clearly this would represent a threat to British support for education in the Commonwealth."

The 264,000 Commonwealth students studying in another country make up about one-fifth of total world mobility. Half are in the United States and a third in other Commonwealth countries including Britain. EU countries apart from Britain host 18,000 Commonwealth students - 10,000 are from Britain itself and about a quarter of the remaining 8,000 are from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Whatever the explanation - the inability to follow courses not taught in English or the absence of cultural and economic ties - Commonwealth students have yet to enjoy the benefits held out when Britain joined the Community.

The question is whether they should. For students from less developed countries the answer is surely 'Yes'. Finding the mechanism is less easy. The obvious solution, to charge all non-British students irrespective of country of origin a tuition fee with remittance available as part of either bi- or multilateral aid, would break EU rules. Another would be, as the working party suggests, to divert a tenth of the "subsidy" to EU students, approaching Pounds 300 million a year, to additional support for Commonwealth students.

That a combination of EU rules and Government aid and education policies should lead to a situation in which students from Greece, Martinique and Reunion can study free in Britain while those from Cyprus, St Lucia or Mauritius have to pay full-cost fees is a betrayal of long-standing loyalties to the Commonwealth.

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