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The next head of the Gates Cambridge Trust, Robert Lethbridge, is confident the scheme will produce future world leaders

January 14, 2010

The next head of an international scholarship scheme established at the University of Cambridge with a $210 million (£131 million) donation from Bill Gates is not shy about the scale of the programme's ambitions.

Robert Lethbridge said the Microsoft tycoon's aim for the Gates Cambridge Trust, established in 2000, was nothing short of "bettering mankind".

Professor Lethbridge is to succeed Gordon Johnson as provost of the trust in October, taking the helm of a scheme that has already helped more than 900 international students from 91 countries undertake postgraduate study at Cambridge.

It aims to bring together students from all over the world, with the hope that Gates scholars will go on to become leading politicians, doctors, lawyers and academics when they return to their home countries.

Professor Lethbridge said that although the scheme has very high academic standards, there are other criteria that applicants must meet.

"The idea is not just that the scholars are academically good, but that they have leadership potential," he said.

He described the concept as "very American": "The students go on bonding trips and fall down mountains together; the idea is that they become friends."

Professor Lethbridge said the network of contacts they build at Cambridge is extremely important, not only to the individuals involved, but also to their home countries.

Although the trust has yet to produce a prime minister, Professor Lethbridge believes it will. "It's still a very young scheme," he said. "I think the oldest scholar is only about 30. But it will go on to produce great leaders."

He likened the Gates Trust to Oxford's Rhodes Trust, of which former US President Bill Clinton is a scholar.

Professor Lethbridge's career at Cambridge began with a PhD at St John's College in 1975. He then took up a teaching fellowship in French at Fitzwilliam College, where he was a senior tutor from 1982 to 1992.

He became chair of French language and literature at Royal Holloway, University of London in 1994, and went on to become head of department, dean of the Graduate School and vice-principal.

After a stint as director of the British Institute in Paris, he returned to Cambridge in 2005 as master of Fitzwilliam. His international experience, which also includes visiting professorships at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Melbourne, should aid his goal of raising the profile of the Gates Trust abroad, as should his frequent travel as college master, he said.

Rose Wilkinson

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