British involvement in the Commonwealth's top postgraduate scholarship scheme is under review as education ministers from 54 Commonwealth countries come under pressure to step up their commitment.
The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, established in 1959 to encourage research cooperation among developed and less-developed member states, was intended to be additional to and distinct from any other schemes. But there is a potential overlap with the Foreign Office's Chevening Scholarships, a main element of the "Blair initiative" to increase the numbers of overseas students in Britain.
British contributions to the CSFP are channelled through the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The DFID contributes most - Pounds 9.25 million in 1998-99 - to finance scholarships for developing countries. But the Foreign Office provides Pounds 2.5 million to recruit potential opinion-formers and economic allies of Britain from the older Commonwealth countries of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
This role shares similarities with the one-year Chevening Scholarships, which Mr Blair has earmarked for expansion by up to 1,000 places a year through a mixture of government and private funding. Foreign Office finance for the CSFP has declined from Pounds 2.1 million in 1999-2000 to Pounds 1.7 million this year, prompting fears of a longer-term decline in support when other schemes - such as the Chevening programme - expand.
John Kirkland, executive secretary of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, said: "It is important that Commonwealth scholarships are seen as an integral part of the Blair initiative, complementing Chevening and other programmes by bringing future high-fliers to the UK at the same time as having a unique role in the development of poorer Commonwealth countries.
"The 'brand image' that the CSFP has developed over the past 40 years represents a major asset for Britain, which it would be impossible to recreate," Mr Kirkland said.
The Foreign Office review will not be completed until early in 2001, too late for the Commonwealth education ministers' conference in Canada in November. But the review of the DFID's involvement is expected before then.
Officials feel that the influence of the DFID-funded scheme on relations between the UK and other Commonwealth member states should not be underestimated.
First results from a tracer study of CSFP recipients, to be published in the autumn, demonstrate how influential the scheme could be. They include one prime minister (Kenny Davis Anthony of St Lucia), several cabinet ministers, civil servants and vice-chancellors.
While there are no fixed geographic quotas, the balance of the scheme is being shifted in favour of sub-Saharan Africa, with the aim of 45 per cent of selections in 1999 increasing to 50 per cent in the current round.
At November's education ministers' conference, efforts will be concentrated on encouraging other member states to contribute to the CSFP scheme, reducing its domination by the UK.