Nations in need of study

July 5, 1996

An international group of senior academics and education professionals has said that awareness and understanding of the Commonwealth is "truly appalling". After a long, hard look at the state of Commonwealth studies in higher education around the Commonwealth, the commission I set up in June 1995 has suggested a host of ways of promoting and strengthening the study of the modern Commonwealth. The commission has a vision which recognises the extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity that exists for member countries to learn from the rich experience of their partners.

Recent events have been very significant for the Commonwealth, and nowhere has that been more apparent than in London. An important dialogue took place last week between an action group of Commonwealth foreign ministers and a high-level delegation from Nigeria about issues of democracy and human rights: a crucially relevant area where, as the commission reminds us, Commonwealth nations have much to learn from each other, and much to give. The same week, the United Kingdom government gave its reply to the extremely positive report of the Commons foreign affairs committee on the future role of the Commonwealth.

Both the commission and the Commons committee stress the importance of educating the public about the Commonwealth, and both underline the key role that bodies like the Commonwealth Institute and the Commonwealth Foundation have to play.

At a more fundamental level, both reports home in on the essential truth that the Commonwealth is a many-centred association of states and peoples, characterised by shared values and many common inheritances from the UK, but also rich in its diversity. The contemporary Commonwealth contains some of the most dynamic economies, as well as some of the most challenging and important problems, in the world. These challenges, and the response by Commonwealth countries, cover such areas as economic liberalisation; democratisation and constitutional design; civil service reform and the efficiency and accountability of public institutions; education; science policy; heritage conservation; environmental protection and much else. Comparing and studying how different Commonwealth countries deal with these issues, the commission suggests, could have great practical, as well as academic, value.

Chaired by Thomas Symons, founding president of Trent University in Canada, the commission endeavoured to secure the best possible advice and information. In total, the commission was in touch with more than 200 individuals and organisations, with a special effort made to visit and collect documentation from some of the principal Commonwealth organisations and centres of Commonwealth studies.

The interest and enthusiasm that the commission's work has excited is gratifying. The broad support received by the commission represents a shining example of the new partnerships being forged between the official and unofficial Commonwealth. In so far as it is a vote of confidence in the future of the Commonwealth, it should be welcomed unreservedly.

The Commonwealth community, and the academic community in particular, will be in the commission's debt for its bold definition of what Commonwealth studies are about and for charting the enormous range of facilities and resources that exists for study. The commission sees the discipline as the study of the Commonwealth as an association, and of the relationships and shared experience - present, future, and past - of its member states and people.

A mapping job was long overdue and an impressive picture emerges of the range of relevant work and activity. Much of it, interestingly enough, is in countries beyond the Commonwealth, where the association is often better understood and where its study has gained academic legitimacy and importance. At Li ge in Belgium, for example, there is a centre for Commonwealth studies and teaching at the undergraduate and masters level.

Much important scholarship - in such fields as the literature, history and economic development - is being done. A significant proportion of it, especially in literature, is being conducted in Europe, the United States and other non-Commonwealth countries. But there have also been exciting developments within the Commonwealth, such as the recent establishment of a Malaysian Commonwealth studies centre in Cambridge.

But the overall conclusion is that, in relation to the potential and to the practical and academic value of such studies, too little is being done. The commission shows that, in many cases, what has been lacking is profile, identity and confidence among scholars. The field also suffers from the absence of sustained and systematic support and development. It has a tendency to be preoccupied with the past, paying insufficient attention to contemporary experience or to the range of present and future problems and opportunities. The commission identifies an urgent need to bring the discipline up to date, reflecting the evolution of the Commonwealth from its British beginnings into a truly polycentric association, in order that teaching, research and skill development can mirror the modern Commonwealth, with all its challenges and possibilities.

Central to the recommendations is the necessity for Commonwealth governments to affirm its importance and to encourage the relevant agencies to devote attention and resources to education about the past, present and future Commonwealth. This calls for the development of networks and the application of existing resources, such as the Commonwealth study awards, to advance this effort. Appropriate action is needed from the bodies responsible for higher education funding and research. Programmes for the exchange of experience among Commonwealth practitioners need to be accorded greater priority. Universities and colleges, on their own or in cooperation with governments, should be encouraged to establish centres of specialised study.

The continued good health of these studies will depend essentially on enthusiasm, support and coordination among the academic community. In this context, it is suggested that the creation of an association for Commonwealth studies could help to give focus and purpose to those working in the field. This proposal is one of many important recommendations that the academic community will want to consider and may wish to implement, with assistance from governments, the Commonwealth secretariat and other institutions.

In addition to pointing out their usefulness to individual countries, the commission has strengthened the conviction that Commonwealth studies can underpin and reinforce the collective efforts to promote good governance and economic and social development. They can also help the multilateral consensus-building which has become a defining characteristic of the Commonwealth and one of its most valuable contributions to the wider international community. They are thus likely to increase its capacity to serve its member countries and people.

This report is the most comprehensive review ever undertaken and its conclusions chime fully with what other groups are saying about the Commonwealth and its enormous potential. It is now up to governments and the academic community to seize on the recommendations and foster an environment where Commonwealth studies can flourish, both for their intrinsic interest and contemporary relevance, and to advance practical understanding and scholarship.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku is the Commonwealth secretary-general.

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