WHAT do an Egyptian PhD, a Greek MBA, a Bulgarian MSc and a Singaporean postgraduate in engineering have in common?
They are just a few of the many postgraduates who have taken part in the British Council-run professional involvement project to help promote British exports and goodwill abroad.
Those participating come from South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the Middle and Far East. For eight years the project has been working quietly with overseas postgraduates from United Kingdom universities. The result is a retinue of unpaid ambassadors working for British interests.
The council's original aim was to provide work experience with British companies and enhance the postgraduates' skills. We have found that the postgraduates' connections with the companies are so strong when they return home that they are helping them to clinch valuable orders and boosting exports. Indeed, a straw poll among companies taking part in the project suggests that UK industry has benefited by more than Pounds 5 million since the scheme was started.
For logistical reasons, the project has been restricted to overseas postgraduates from northern universities such as Manchester, UMIST, Lancaster, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Durham and Newcastle. But many other universities have indicated they will take part. They know they will gain prestige and cement overseas links with postgraduates who may become people of influence back home. Companies benefit greatly from the skills of the postgraduates seconded to them. For instance, a Zambian postgraduate, who is on secondment to Midlands Power International to gain work experience, has proved to be the trump card played by the company in becoming "preferred bidder" to provide power to Zambia's mineral rich copperbelt.
Lawrence Musaba, who received a doctorate and a masters degree in electrical power engineering at UMIST, arrived at Copperbelt Energy, a consortium formed by Midlands Power International and the National Grid Company, just as they were tendering for the contract. Kevin Chapman, project development manager at Midlands Power International, said: "Lawrence provided a vital part of the engineering support that enabled us to make the bid.
"He had worked for a while in the copper mines in Zambia, his doctorate was directly linked to our business and, of course, he is Zambian. Indeed, with his knowledge and what we were seeking to achieve, he came to us at the ideal time. He was a perfect fit."
Mr Musaba plans to return to Zambia later this year to set up his own engineering business and consultancy, but intends to maintain links with Midlands Power International.
Alena Molina, a young Russian woman who was seconded to the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, soon found herself helping to privatise Sheffield's "super tram" system. She is involved in techniques that will be immensely useful to Russia's burgeoning privatisation programme when she returns to Moscow.
Ms Molina, 28, had a first-class degree in biology in Russia and won a British Council scholarship to do a MBA at Lancaster University. Her six-month secondment in South Yorkshire proved to be so vital to the privatisation's success that it was extended to a year. She is coordinating the team of lawyers, merchant bankers and tax advisers involved in the city's privatisation programme. She said: "Much of the industry in Russia is being privatised and I'm sure the knowledge I've gained here will be tremendously useful to the Russian government and companies back home."
But not all overseas postgraduates in the project come to Britain on British Council scholarships - others are sponsored by their governments or pay for their own study. They all have one common denominator: they are quite exceptional academics with three or four years of work. They are able to apply considerable technical skills and knowledge to any company they are attached to.
Vera Sabeva, an economist from Bulgaria, proved so effective while on secondment to investment bankers SBC Warburg Dillon Read that she is now on the permanent staff.
The bank first spotted Vera's talents while she was working with them on a four-month spell, organised by the project. Because of her experience of the emerging markets of Eastern Europe, her secondment was extended by a further four months, then by another six before Warburg's offered her a full-time post in its corporate finance division.
Vera was brought to Britain on a British Council scholarship to study for a MSc degree in finance, which she gained at the University of Lancaster. She already held degrees in transport construction and international economics from the University of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Sofia.
The average period of secondment has more than trebled since the project was first introduced. Initially, participating companies provided about two months' work experience; today the average is well over six months. Businesses are asked to pay a minimum of Pounds 1,150 a month towards the postgraduate's living costs.
It is money well spent. The postgraduates usually return home as "high flyers", with leading positions in government or industry. Many of them retain links with the companies they worked with in the UK and provide them with business information, government and commercial introductions and business opportunities.
So far as the council is concerned, the project has proved to be invaluable, as it gives direct benefit to Britain and British industry. Our research has shown that postgraduates who have participated in the project become well disposed towards Britain and British culture and a good placement with a UK company helps to endear them towards Britain and all things British.
As our placements increase, the benefits to British industry will grow. I believe that once we are firmly established nationally, and more project students return to influential positions in their own countries, we could be generating added exports for this country worth Pounds 1 or Pounds 2 million a year, as well as maintaining considerable international goodwill.
Martin Carney is project coordinator of the British Council's professional involvement project.