Wake up and get back in the same boat

January 31, 1997

National interest in the Commonwealth all but evaporated in the 1980s. Displaced by a concentration on European issues and dismissed by a prime minister who regarded the isolation of apartheid as a Marxist-inspired assault on her world vision, the Commonwealth languished in obscurity.

But there are now signs of a change both in popular and political attitudes. Malcolm Rifkind's endorsement of the United Kingdom year of the Commonwealth, announced at Lancaster House last night, is the beginning of a process which will run up to the heads of government meeting in Edinburgh.

Numerous events are being coordinated through the Commonwealth Trust and universities, and students are involved with many of them.

That there should be a significant higher education involvement should come as no surprise. While popular indifference reigned, many in the university sector beavered away to set up student exchanges and collaborative research projects of benefit both to the richer countries of the west and the poorer and smaller nations who were the main recipients under programmes such as the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan or part of networks such as the Commonwealth Universities Study Abroad Consortium.

Last year's Commons foreign affairs committee report has been highly influential in giving a new impetus to the recognition that the Commonwealth is still a potent force, particularly in the field of education. It recommended renewed government attention to the educational and cultural interchanges "which used to characterise the Commonwealth and which must not be allowed to languish".

The reality, clearly evident in the Foreign Office response, is that the (present) government sees no alternative to a continued decline in government support for the CSFP, and a consequent reduction in the numbers offered each year.

Against the background of reductions in funding for the British Council, which has had its Foreign Office funding for 1996 limited to Pounds 130 million and shed dozens of staff in London to protect its operations overseas, British higher education links with the Commonwealth face ever greater constraints. The council, which for the first time last year earned more from its entrepreneurial activities - the "sale" of courses and qualifications systems - than from its direct FCO grant, may be forced to consider withdrawing from "non-profitable" regions such as Africa to concentrate on more lucrative markets.

If this were to happen, Commonwealth countries would be the main losers. The result would be a vacuum which is already beginning to be filled. It is entirely healthy that countries such as Malaysia should step into the breach left by Britain's increasing absence, a step given concrete shape by Malaysian prime minister Mohamed Mahathir's involvement in Commonwealth scholarships at Cambridge and support for the financially precarious Commonwealth of Learning.

It is in line with the committee report that the perception of the Commonwealth as a neo-colonial hierarchy should be challenged. The differing cultural and economic priorities of the Commonwealth's 53 countries do not sit well with a model which owes more to British imperialism than to the realities of a rapidly-changing community of countries.

Britain has a central role to play in this realigned Commonwealth. Universities in Britain will continue to pursue links with other Commonwealth countries, either bilaterally or through recognised channels.

As a shop window of best practice and educational products and services, the British Council is staging a symposium and exhibition to coincide with this July's conference of Commonwealth education ministers in Botswana. The event will concentrate on transitional strategies in Commonwealth countries and the potential use of new technologies.

And the London-based Association of Commonwealth Universities is about to embark on a process of revitalisation under which it will increasingly become a specialised management consultancy and trouble-shooting agency.

When the heads of government have left Edinburgh, and a new British Government is preparing to assume the presidency of the European Commission, it is what is left from the UK Year that will matter.

The creation of a political climate in which the next Government is more prepared than its predecessors to invest in educational aid programmes through Commonwealth networks and to maintain Britain's educational and cultural presence overseas would be a positive legacy.

Diverting the Pounds 60 million earmarked for replacing the royal yacht to agencies such as the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat would have a far greater representative effect.

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