Network needed to spread Commonwealth word

October 24, 1997

COMMONWEALTH

An attempt to breathe new life into the idea of an Association for Commonwealth Studies is to be made during the heads of government meeting.

An association to act as a network for academics was a central recommendation of the 1996 Symons report on Commonwealth studies, which found a patchwork of isolated initiatives, with signs of more interest at universities outside the Commonwealth than inside.

The report was welcomed by the Commonwealth secretary general, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, and endorsed by Commonwealth education ministers, who were also keen to improve knowledge of the Commonwealth in schools.

Education ministers called on state leaders actively to encourage Commonwealth studies to secure a wider recognition among young people of the organisation's relevance and value, which they saw as crucial to its survival and strengthening as an institution in the 21st century and beyond.

One option discussed in ministerial circles to encourage the resurgence of Commonwealth studies urged by Symons is the creation of chairs in universities considered to be centres of excellence.

Ministers believe the association could encourage Commonwealth studies and help prepare cross-curricular materials for use in schools.

Despite the enthusiasm shown at this year's Commonwealth education ministers meeting in Botswana in August, there is no evidence of enthusiasm to host the association - partly because of the financial implications.

As Commonwealth experts gather to monitor the heads of government meeting, exploratory talks are planned to see if the scope of the proposed association can be defined more precisely to enable vice chancellors to contribute towards the cost of scholarships.

Education ministers have also put other issues on the Commonwealth heads' agenda. These include financial support for the Commonwealth of Learning, the Vancouver-based distance learning agency launched at the 1987 heads of government meeting.

While education ministers have been impressed by CoL's ability to survive on a hand-to-mouth basis, they want heads of government to ensure a more predictable flow of money to enable it to meet the demands placed on it by developing countries, especially the Commonwealth's 31 small states.

But perhaps the hottest potato from Botswana is the future of the Commonwealth's student mobility programmes. Education ministers appealed to leaders to support the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan and the Commonwealth Universities Study Abroad Consortium.

The plan is regarded as the flagship scheme of Commonwealth higher education. It is seen as truly pan-Commonwealth, with the original concept to facilitate a "multilateral trade in ideas".

But it is in danger of collapse. While collectively ministers support it, individual states are less committed cash-wise.

Since the 1994 education ministers' gathering, the number of awarding countries has remained small, with a declining number of new awards each year.

While several smaller countries - including Jamaica, Brunei, Uganda and Tonga - have given extra support, the big donor countries have either pegged their contributions or made dramatic changes in policy.

New Zealand has pulled the plug on the so-called North-South exchanges in favour of South-South links, while Australia is said to be heading in the same direction and Canada is questioning the scheme on value-for-money grounds.

Britain contributes about Pounds 14 million a year - about half the total cost of British membership of the Commonwealth. Ministers hoped that heads of government would support both schemes to encourage student mobility and educational opportunity.

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