IN AN increasingly international world, more students than ever are spending some part of their studies at a university in a country other than their own. But despite a small increase in overall numbers, the proportion of international students from Commonwealth countries is at an all-time low.
Recent analysis shows that the inflow of non-Commonwealth students to the main host countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, has increased much faster than the exchange of students within the Commonwealth.
The net result is that between 1978 and 1995 the proportion of overseas students from the Commonwealth fell from 53 per cent of the total to 39 per cent, a trend that shows no signs of recovery.
Commonwealth education ministers want urgent action to find the money to reverse the decline. They ended their five-day conference in Botswana with an unequivocal call to the heads of government meeting, to be held in Edinburgh in October, for financial support.
The ministers said money is needed for initiatives such as the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, which fosters postgraduate studies, and the newer Commonwealth Universities Study Abroad Consortium.
They also underlined the need for a "predictable" flow of resources to the Commonwealth of Learning, the Vancouver-based distance learning agency whose core funding until March 2000 was assured by pledges given at the Gaborone talks.
Interpreting the ministers' message, Sir Humphrey Maud, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth, said: "The message is pretty specific - we see a huge benefit in Commonwealth mobility. We regret the decline of resources and numbers that has been apparent in recent years. Ministers, and heads of government, should think seriously about putting resources into exchanges between universities through CUSAC and into the CSFP."
Although the attempt to resolve the issue of differential fees for Commonwealth undergraduate students was finally buried three years ago in Islamabad, ministers are eager to find ways of encouraging greater undergraduate mobility. This is despite high-fee regimes in many of the major host countries, Britain included.
CUSAC was launched as a pilot scheme in 1993 to establish a two-way flow between the developed and less-developed Commonwealth nations. Since then, there has been a gradual increase in student exchanges - now averaging 50 to 60 students a year. By the end of 1996, 280 students had travelled overseas under the scheme. Even so, there is disappointment that the take-up has been largely confined to students from the developed Commonwealth.
Only 18 universities out of the total scheme membership have actually taken part in exchanges, and "south-south" movement is negligible. Despite these shortcomings, ministers agreed that the CUSAC pilot had satisfactorily achieved its objectives. It was time to turn it into a pan-Commonwealth scheme, they agreed, welcoming a suggestion from Malta that a centralised system of student funding should be set up to help students take part.
Ministers regard the CSFP as the flagship scheme of Commonwealth higher education, but are worried at the trend since the last conference in Islamabad, when a target of 2,000 scholarships by the year 2000 was set. In Pakistan several countries made pledges they later failed to fulfil, and the number of new scholarships awarded each year has actually fallen, possibly by as much as one-sixth.
Latest data analysed immediately for the Botswana conference suggests that while total numbers of awards has held steady, new awards offered each year have begun to drop dramatically, from 618 in 1993/94 to 608 in 1994/95 and 485 in 1995/96.
In the event, several countries took the opportunity of the Gaborone conference to announce awards - many of them small states offering awards for the first time or making a modest expansion of existing arrangements.
Countries announcing new awards included Jamaica (two), Brunei (doubling from five to ten), Mauritius (two) and one from Tonga on behalf of the South Pacific nations.
But the latest awards are not enough to bring the scheme on target if it retains the rigid form it has had since it was set up in 1959.
Since 1960 more than 25,000 award-holders have benefited from the scheme that is highly competitive and based on merit. Britain remains top of the league for awarding scholarships (48 per cent), followed by Canada (23 per cent), and Australia (20 per cent), with India (5 per cent) and New Zealand (3 per cent) trailing the leaders. All other countries account for just 1 per cent.
As well as its limited flexibility, many developing countries have been disappointed to find their best brains disappearing overseas just when they could be of most value.
Ministers were attracted to a plan drawn up by the UK's Commonwealth Scholarship Commission to increase the numbers of UK awards within existing resources by cutting their average length.
It also recommends new forms the awards might take. These include split doctorates involving a period of research training and research in two universities, one in the UK and the other in the sending nation, and joint taught masters' programmes with only six months or a year spent away from the sending country.