London's Commonwealth Institute has opened negotiations with Cambridge University to set up a pan-Commonwealth centre of excellence in education.
The institute, which recently suffered a financial crisis over a failed internet venture, plans to abandon its mission of promoting awareness of the Commonwealth in British schools. The move reflects the change in its status from UK Foreign Office to Commonwealth control.
If negotiations with the new faculty of education at Cambridge to establish the centre are successful, it will engage in original research and the training of research students from Commonwealth countries. It will also provide a focus for high-fliers from Commonwealth countries to collaborate in research as visiting fellows.
Critics have expressed their fears to Don McKinnon, secretary-general of the Commonwealth. They questioned the way Cambridge was chosen over other universities with strong records in educational research.
Those who believe the Commonwealth Secretariat should retain a strong presence in education cooperation are anxious that the secretariat's own education work could be off-loaded. They point to the omission of an unambiguous reference to education in a report of the top-level review of the Commonwealth's activities as evidence that some member states would like to see its education role abandoned.
The institute denied that the move was driven by financial crisis, but Mr McKinnon has confirmed a connection with the collapse of its e-Commonwealth news and information portal with losses estimated at up to £1.8 million.
David French, the institute's chief executive, sought to distance the plan from the e-Commonwealth debacle and defended the choice of Cambridge as a partner. "There is a good fit between Cambridge and the institute, precisely because we are bringing different things to the partnership. With the Institute of Education and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University already has most of what the institute would bring, so why would they need us?"
The centre is scheduled to open in September 2003.