Fee relief is key to widening access

December 8, 2000

David Jobbins and Philip Fine at the Commonwealth education ministers' meeting, Halifax

Commonwealth education ministers have set ambitious targets for student mobility between member states, with a recommendation for a 50 per cent increase in numbers by 2003.

They also aim to double the number of states offering awards under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan to 14 by 2002.

Ministers agreed on a target of 675 new awards by 2003, restoring the scheme to its 1967 peak, at their meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last week. More than 20,000 students have had scholarships in the scheme's 40 years.

The original target of 1,000 active awards at a time was largely met in the 1980s and early 1990s but declined to a 20-year low in 1997. There have since been signs of recovery. The switch to full-cost fees, payable in the receiving countries, has hit take-up of three-year postgraduate places.

Janet Museveni, first lady of Uganda, opened the conference with an impassioned plea for easing financial barriers to student mobility. She said: "We could request that university education be made slightly cheaper for students from the Commonwealth, to enable more students from developing nations to benefit from programmes available only at the better recognised and better facilitated universities in our sister nations."

Commonwealth secretary-general Don McKinnon reminded delegates of the impact of full-cost fees on relations between the developed and developing Commonwealth. "The erosion of academic exchanges, which came about in part with the (introduction of) student fees, has weakened the shared commitment," he said.

Delegates to the symposium running in parallel with the ministerial conference issued a call for wealthier countries to give special consideration to students from poorer Commonwealth countries.

Burchell Whiteman, Jamaica's education minister, said that 58 per cent of Commonwealth students in UK higher education in 1997-98 were self-funded. And A. S. H. K. Sidique, Bangladesh's education minister, endorsed the plea for more assistance for mobility from students from developing countries who faced substantial fee differentials: "I would strongly recommend those countries to review their systems and allow foreign students, particularly from the developing countries of the Commonwealth, some kind of privilege not to pay three to four times the fees of local students."

But Stephen Matlin, head of the Commonwealth Secretariat division responsible for education, was sceptical about a change in policy. "Given the way higher education is moving, thinking of a blanket reduction for Commonwealth students is unrealistic."

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