Education ministers from Commonwealth countries are set to agree to substantially increase the number of international scholarships on offer to students from developing nations.
The Commonwealth Education Policy Framework, which was due to be agreed at a meeting of ministers in Fiji that runs until 23 February, says that efforts should be focused on providing bursaries for students from poorer small-island states and African countries hoping to study in developed and developing nations’ universities.
Increasing the number of scholarships available by 2020 will be helpful “as a means of building a shared Commonwealth higher education space”, according to the report, which adds that “far more attention” should be given to shorter and more flexible exchange programmes.
The framework is the Commonwealth’s contribution towards meeting the sustainable development goal, set by the United Nations in 2015, which calls for quality education and lifelong opportunities to be made available to all.
Alongside the target on scholarships, ministers are also set to agree to work towards achieving “equal access” for women and men to “affordable and high-quality” university education by 2030.
The framework says that there has been rapid growth in higher education enrolments in Commonwealth countries since 2000, including a significant increase in private provision, but that “quality has struggled to keep pace with these changes, as have systems of funding, staff development and regulation”.
Universities have often been driven “by what programmes they can find students for and what they can deliver at the lowest cost”, leading them to deliver “overly specialised courses for which there is no labour market demand, or to over-produce graduates in certain disciplines, especially in the arts and humanities”, the document adds.
The framework says that countries should work to address public and employer concerns about the comparability of qualifications, and to introduce “stronger national planning processes around higher education programming”, as well as “new mechanisms for incentivising offers that are better related to economic needs”.
The framework also covers universities’ research activities, noting that “large parts of the Commonwealth higher education system produce little research that is of academic or practical value”. Research capacity needs to be increased and efforts should be focused on work that is “developmentally useful”, the report says.
Speaking ahead of the summit, Layne Robinson, the Commonwealth’s head of social policy, said that “huge gaps” remained in many member states’ education provision, despite the “significant progress” that had been made in recent years.
“We believe that by working together and exchanging solutions and sharing out resources we can help to bridge those gaps,” Mr Robinson said.
Joanna Newman, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said that she hoped ministers would "actively support" the expansion of existing scholarship schemes.
"As the body that manages the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, we welcome this call for expansion," Dr Newman said. "We want to ensure that all Commonwealth countries can reap the benefits of both inward and outward student mobility."