Partners mapping the future

August 14, 1998

Secretary-general Chief Emeka Anyaoku outlines the crucial role of higher education in expanding the association, promoting its fundamental democratic values and broadening its vision

Since the development of the modern Commonwealth some 50 years ago, cooperation in higher education has played important and varied roles. For some, it has been a source of cross-cultural interaction, enriching the experiences and sensitivities of Commonwealth scholars. Others have seen education as a developmental tool to help countries increase their capacities for growth. For many, the key role of education is its capacity for sharing common values and ideas between countries - providing the very bedrock on which the Commonwealth is built.

The Commonwealth is expanding geographically and conceptually. The return of Pakistan and South Africa to membership, followed most recently by membership for Mozambique and Cameroon and the re-admission of Fiji, has brought the total to 54 countries representing 1.7 billion people, about 30 per cent of the world's population. This enlargement, and the membership applications pending, attest to the association's remarkable popularity and relevance.

Conceptually, the Commonwealth continues to enlarge its vision and sense of purpose. The fundamental values of the association emphasise good governance, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and sustainable, environmentally sound development. In recent years, the Commonwealth has played a key role in assisting a number of countries to make a peaceful transition to democratic government based on multiparty elections.

In 1995, I established a commission to examine the state of Commonwealth studies in higher education. In submitting the commission's report, the chairman, Tom Symons of Canada, noted that they had been forcefully struck by the extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity that exists for Commonwealth countries to learn from the rich experience of their Commonwealth partners in many fields. The Commonwealth contains some of the most significant and creative societies, and some of the most challenging and important problems, in the world. Our common inheritance, shared experience and ease of communication make it especially relevant and useful to learn how other Commonwealth countries have been tackling, frequently in imaginative ways, what are often very similar challenges in such areas as economic liberalisation; democratisation and constitutional design; civil service reform and the efficiency and accountability of public institutions; provision and funding of health care and social security; taxation; education at all levels; and much else. In short, all Commonwealth countries - rich or poor, large or small - have much to learn from their partners and have new possibilities of doing so.

An important recommendation of the commission, subsequently endorsed by heads of government, was that an Association for Commonwealth Studies be established to provide a mechanism for promoting and strengthening work in this field. The Commonwealth Secretariat has been cooperating closely with partners - including the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Commonwealth Institute, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Royal Commonwealth Society - to achieve this goal. I was delighted that the association was launched enthusiastically in London on June 1 at a meeting attended by more than 70 representatives from Britain and around the Commonwealth.

I look forward to the focus and coherence that the new association will bring to the field, and I hope that it will receive strong support from the higher education community throughout the Commonwealth.

The growth of the Commonwealth in size and purpose has been accompanied by changes in the volume, direction and nature of student mobility.

The total flow of higher education students between Commonwealth countries has increased - from a modest growth of 11 per cent between 1978 and 1990, it expanded by 35 per cent in the following five years. By 1996 there were 84,000 Commonwealth students studying in other Commonwealth countries.

The rise in student mobility within the Commonwealth is welcome news, but the fact is that this growth has not kept pace with worldwide student mobility during the same period. There have been many economic, social and political changes in the past couple of decades that affect the ability of students to migrate and their choice of destinations.

The picture for Britain over the past 20 years illustrates the interweaving of many of these trends. Twenty years ago, there were about 88,000 foreign students studying in Britain at the post-secondary level. Of those, 45,000 came from Commonwealth countries, and three-quarters of these were in higher education. By the mid-1990s, the total had reached about 155,000 foreign students.

The number of Commonwealth students, however, actually fell for a time and has only recently risen again to reach about 48,000 - so the proportion of Commonwealth higher education students within the total has fallen from about a half to less than a third during this period. The application of full-cost fees for Commonwealth students and the much lower tuition charges for European Union students coming to Britain are two of the major contributors to this shift.

More changes can be anticipated: in 1995, there were about 26,000 students from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore studying in Britain, constituting 58 per cent of the total from Commonwealth countries. The financial crises in South-east Asia are having a large effect on the mobility of students from the region.

There are two important mechanisms for encouraging and promoting the movement of higher education students between Commonwealth countries, and each is undergoing important changes.

The older programme, long regarded as the flagship of higher education cooperation in the Commonwealth, is the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP), launched in 1959 at the first Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers at Oxford. Since then the CSFP - in which individual governments offer a number of fully funded awards for study in their universities, mainly for postgraduate degrees - has grown to a level where about 1,700 students a year get help to study in another Commonwealth country.

Britain has always played a leading role in this scheme: it sponsors about half of all the awards. However, there has been a significant decline in the number of awards in Britain in the past few years, and that has been only partially offset by new or increased numbers of awards from other member countries. Last year, Britain announced that some important changes would be initiated in the modalities through which its CSFP awards are operated. These include the introduction of jointly taught or jointly supervised and split-site degrees under which the student would spend some time in a home-based institution rather than all of the time abroad. The main purpose of the changes is to stress the development of institutional linkages to accompany the investment in individual students. Coupled with the introduction of more awards for masters rather than PhD courses, the shorter periods of study abroad will increase the total numbers of students participating in the scheme.

A new initiative to encourage student mobility, originated by the Commonwealth Secretariat in the early 1990s, has just completed its pilot phase, in which 45 Commonwealth universities from 17 countries participated. The Commonwealth Universities Study Abroad Consortium (CUSAC) is a self-funded scheme in which bilateral arrangements between universities allow students, mainly at the undergraduate level, to spend a period of usually less than a year studying at a partner institution in another member country and to receive credit for their work as part of the home-based degree. Nearly 300 students have studied abroad under CUSAC's auspices, with participating British institutions including the universities of East Anglia, Glasgow, Hull, Keele, Oxford and South Bank.

CUSAC now needs to be expanded to become a Commonwealth-wide scheme. This will require it to be housed and nurtured by an appropriate organisation. We are delighted that the Association of Commonwealth Universities is showing a strong interest in taking on this role. The ACU plays a major role in administering Britain's CSFP awards and, given its position at the very centre of higher education in the Commonwealth, it is fitting that the ACU should take on the task of guiding the CUSAC scheme to maturity and ensuring that it becomes an equally important and complementary vehicle for student mobility in the Commonwealth.

As the physical and conceptual geography of the Commonwealth expands, there is need for fresh route maps to help chart its territory. Higher education, standing as it does at the forefront of learning, is intrinsically well placed to provide the compass bearings and identify the pathways through which the association can sustain itself and continue to grow. It is through the partnerships among the higher education institutions of the Commonwealth and through the work of key institutions such as the ACU, the new Association for Commonwealth Studies and schemes such as the CSFP and CUSAC that these maps of the future will be drawn.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku is secretary-general of the Commonwealth.

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