Common cause at Islamabad

November 25, 1994

On Sunday Commonwealth education ministers assemble in Islamabad for their 12th conference since Oxford in 1959. The gathering is a reaffirmation of the Commonwealth's continuing value to members. It is the first ministerial conference hosted by Pakistan since it rejoined the Commonwealth in 1989, and the first with official South African representation since the early 1960s.

For Britain the meeting is an occasion on which to take stock of our role in international education, particularly in relation to the Commonwealth. Britain has been outstandingly generous to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, to which we contribute nearly 1,000 awards at any one time, around 60 per cent of the total. But the plan operates bilaterally: the United Kingdom has often appeared less enthusiastic about multilateral co-operation and to have dragged its feet on the question of support for the Commonwealth of Learning, the distance-education agency based in Vancouver, and the Commonwealth Higher Education Support Scheme.

Not that Britain opposes multilateral co-operation for development as such. It puts more than Pounds 400 million a year into the European Union's development fund for the third world and contributes very substantial sums to the World Bank. Against this, a paltry Pounds 10-15 million a year is invested by Britain in Commonwealth multilateral co-operation.

The principal theme of the conference is the state's changing role in education. Britain's views and experience will be keenly studied but not swallowed whole. Many Commonwealth developing countries have a strong belief in the need for central government to intervene actively to create national unity and social cohesion. They regard moves to dismantle the state's position through decentralisation, privatisation and cost-sharing with some foreboding.

They may well remark that whatever messages Britain proclaims, her actions speak just as loudly: from her own supposedly decentralised systems of education only the Department for Education is represented on Britain's team in Islamabad and no one from local authorities.

The delegation is led appropriately enough by Lord Lucas, the Government spokesman on education in the Lords. For the second time running Britain has not had a minister leading the team. In November 1990 Tim Eggar had to bow out to vote on dog licences. This time the EU budget will prevent Eric Forth leaving London. Yet in the context of our relations with developing countries this is the exception rather than the rule.

The department is to the fore in the European Union and Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development but when it comes to Africa, Asia or the Caribbean it is largely blind -- an oddity when it is recalled that Sir John Caines and Sir Tim Lankester are both former permanent secretaries at the Overseas Development Administration and the current permanent secretary at ODA is John Vereker, lately of education.

The notion that education in Turkey is a matter for DFE, but education in Singapore or South Africa is a matter for ODA, is a dangerous, damaging compartmentalisation. It was a contributory factor in the disaster of British policy towards overseas students which will cost us dear in loss of influence.

The message that there are some countries whom we treat as equal partners and others who are merely the recipients of our aid is deeply insulting to developing countries. This is not a new phenomenon either. Many were equally offended by our insensitivity when, as members of Unesco, we switched representation in the world's highest educational forum from Department of Education and Science to the ODA in the late 1960s. When we return, as we ought, it should be an education minister who carries the Union Jack back to the Unesco podium.Involving the DFE centrally in Britain's education relations with developing countries is just one aspect of the need for Britain to get her overseas education act together. Not only the education departments and ODA are involved but also trade and cultural relations. It may seem all right in Whitehall to have the ODA, the Department of Trade and Industry (through the education and training sub-group of its overseas projects board), FCO and the British Council, and DFE involved in different dimensions of education relations with, say, Malaysia or India and singing different songs.

But in those countries it may be the same ministry and minister who negotiates British aid, deals with a DTI trade delegation selling British educational services to the public education system, handles educational and cultural exchanges with the British Council and frets over DFE and Treasury policies on overseas student fees.

They find it hard to understand that the friendship professed by a British trade delegation is in a different compartment from policy on overseas student fees, aid, or membership of Unesco. Unfortunately this is not just a matter of appearances abroad. Knowledgeable people in Britain are flabbergasted that the ODA would issue its 1994 policy statement on British educational assistance without making a single reference to the existence of the British Council.

Similarly Andrew Rowe MP, a member of the education and training sub-group of the DTI overseas projects board writing in The THES (October 7) on British education exports, could deplore the lack of co-operation evident in projecting Britain's image abroad, but equally failed to mention that this is a prime reason why we fund the British Council with its excellent network of offices. For the first time since the seventh conference in Accra in 1977 acrimony over full-cost fees for Commonwealth students is unlikely to rise above the surface at Islamabad. Hopefully this will encourage our own delegation -- and those of Australia and New Zealand which also charge full-cost fees -- to be less defensive on the subject of co-operation and more active in promoting practical collective endeavours.

Silence on fees should not be construed as tacit approval of rich countries' policies. A deep sense of injury remains, particularly at Britain's discriminatory fee regime. On joining the EEC in 1973 Britain claimed that her membership would in no way diminish her commitment to the Commonwealth.

Until the late 1970s European students at British universities and colleges paid fees at the same rate as Commonwealth students: there were then about 7,000 EEC students in British publicly-funded post-secondary education and about 45,000 from the Commonwealth. When full-cost fees for overseas students were introduced in 1980, EEC students were exempted and even had the home student fee paid by the British taxpayer to match home students. By 1992/93 EU student numbers had quintupled to 35,000 and Commonwealth students had fallen by a fifth to 36,000. By 1994/95, EU students almost certainly outnumber those from the Commonwealth.

Consider the financial consequences. Full-cost fees were announced in 1979 and introduced in 1980 to save subsidies of Pounds 100 million a year, spent mostly on developing country students. The current fee subsidy to 40,000 EU students is probably around Pounds 300 million a year, equivalent to Pounds 120 million in 1979 money, and the subsidy will be jacked up when new countries join the EU.

My three wishes for 1995? First some imaginative thrusts in Commonwealth co-operation in education, arising from Islamabad. Second a higher profile for the Commonwealth in Britain's multilateral co-operation. And third, a real attempt by Britain to get its act together in overseas educational relations.

Peter Williams recently retired as director of education at the Commonwealth Secretariat. He was secretary to the ninth, tenth and 11th conferences of Commonwealth education ministers 1984 to 1990.

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