High-tech chance to heal rifts

March 14, 1997

In the pre-election phoney war, pressure groups are queuing to seek hostages to fortune from the opposition parties. And the future of Commonwealth students in the United Kingdom is one of those potentially costly issues on which a commitment is going to be hard to extract.

There is widespread agreement outside the Conservative party that a policy of full-cost fees for overseas students has done serious damage to Britain's standing in the Commonwealth - almost as wounding as the years of resistance to sanctions against apartheid. As the UK Year of the Commonwealth rolls towards October's heads of government meeting in Edinburgh, there is a temptation in some quarters to return to the battles of the 1980s.

If the Commonwealth achieves a higher profile it is not going to be easy to explain the logic behind having subsidised places for students from EU countries and their dependencies while "deserving" students from the developing Commonwealth face crippling costs.

Neither can a policy of indiscriminate subsidy be sustained in the hard-edged market economy into which universities have been thrust. Whatever they or their predecessors may have said when full-cost fees were introduced, it would be hard now to find a single vice chancellor who would sever the financial lifeline the policy has offered. There is no realistic prospect of a new government reversing it.

But, as last year's report on the Commonwealth by the all-party Commons Foreign affairs committee re-emphasised, strong educational and cultural associations between the UK and developing countries should not be under-valued. Those closely involved with the various Commonwealth study programmes funded by the Foreign Office and the Overseas Development Administration know better than anyone the impact of cuts.

Year-on-year cuts have been compounded by a switch from bilateral to multilateral aid through the European Union and other agencies. Both the main opposition parties are pledged to reverse the cuts and to increase the share of Britain's wealth to be distributed among poorer nations, many of which are in the Commonwealth. But neither is prepared to talk of action in the first Parliament after the election.

Does the solution lie with technology? Britain's universities are among world leaders in designing and creating distance-learning schemes. Valuable as a period at a university in the West is, bringing large numbers of students to the UK, subsidised or not, is not the best use of resources. Warm memories of a friendly university community will increasingly count for little against the logic of a distance-learning package which reaches thousands for a fraction of the cost.

Far better to encourage UK universities to produce quality materials that will out-perform packages from other developed nations. This summer the British Council is to capitalise on the biennial Commonwealth education ministers' conference in Botswana to demonstrate the best educational practice. It is an ideal opportunity for British universities to convince Commonwealth leaders that the world has moved on from the battle of full-cost fees.

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