New donors back commonwealth of learning

November 29, 1996

The Commonwealth of Learning has endured a hand-to-mouth existence since it was established by Commonwealth leaders nine years ago to use distance learning techniques to create and widen access to education.

Its future has been in doubt on more than one occasion as its funding threatened to fall away. With Commonwealth education ministers and heads meeting again in 1997, CoL will once more be under the microscope.

The sole Commonwealth agency outside the UK (it is based in Vancouver) has seen its budget of Can$9 million (Pounds 3.75 million) halved in the last four years.

There is now evidence of interest from new countries such as Malaysia, which this year, for the first time, committed Can$68,300 a year for two years to CoL's core funding base, Kenya and the Maldives. Tonga, with a GNP of less than US$150 million, has nearly doubled its annual contribution to Can$16,000 and St Vincent and the Grenadines, unable to contribute until now, has sent Can$2,500. Britain pledged Pounds 1 million over three years (1994/95-1996/67) and a further Pounds 0.6 million over the two years 1997/98 and 1998/89, to become the second-largest contributor after Canada.

"Education has to go to the user," said CoL president Gajaraj Dhanarajan in what could be his organisation's motto. "It has to fit in with lifestyle and affordability." With 900 million illiterate teenagers and adults in the world, it may be fitting that an organisation trying to stretch itself across the globe to help share and develop educational resources, sees, from its Vancouver office, the Rockies on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The CoL has great heights to scale and great depths to plunge to accomplish its mandate of enhancing everyone's access to quality education and training.

The actual motto is "Education for all" and translates into a centre where distance education - learning outside of the traditional classroom by way of television, radio, audio tape, written correspondence or the Internet - and developmental work go hand in hand. It can mean establishing a computer training centre in Zambia, implementing a programme to prop up Caribbean teacher training or a number of other activities sharing the common educational wealth of 53 countries.

In seven years of operation, the organisation, which counts an impressive host of international university professors on its board, has implemented projects in 40 countries delivering more than 300 programmes.

In November last year, the agency received high-level recognition from Commonwealth heads of government while sounding an urgent funding appeal. This year, the financial picture has improved but the organisation is not pleading with debt-obsessed governments. Rather, it is connecting to well-placed NGOs. Dr Dhanarajan has been spending most of his time trying to sign up a range of funding sources so as not to rely too heavily on governments. However, it is not likely calls to ministers of education will stop. With non-governmental support at around 12 per cent, CoL is not about to abandon its biggest donors.

Dr Dhanarajan argues that donations represent a drop in the bucket of a government's deficit and funding is a sound investment in education. CoL was created at the Vancouver Commonwealth Summit in 1987 by leaders frustrated at the financial barriers traditional learning has erected. They recognised the huge potential of distance education and wanted to shift the educational equation in favour of the many who had thus far been unable to access it - those who have been marginalised for reasons such as gender, poverty, geography, or other factors.

Tony Bates, director of distance education at the University of British Columbia, calls CoL's mandate "an almost impossible job," keeping 53 governments satisfied while operating on little money.

But he sees business in distance education on the increase. In his 25 years in open learning, Mr Bates says interest "has never been as intense as it is right now".

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