Next week's conference of Commonwealth ministers of education in Edinburgh comes at a time of great challenges and stress in international relations. With its capacity for embracing, bridging and transcending cultures from every continent, the Commonwealth has a great role to play, as does education.
The Commonwealth's activities and achievements in education are pervasive and substantial. For example, more than 20,000 students and university teachers have benefited from the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, initiated in 1958 by Sidney Smith of Canada. The first Directory of Commonwealth Scholars is being published to coincide with the conference. And profiles have been prepared of the careers of some 2,000 of the plan's recipients, who include an array of statesmen and stateswomen and community leaders.
There is also the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which promotes international cooperation and understanding, while the Commonwealth of Learning has pioneered open and distance education on an international scale. Other educational activities include the opening of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol and the salvaging and relocation to Cambridge of the library of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
Despite this activity, there has been little change in the seven years since a commission found that levels of knowledge and understanding about the Commonwealth and what it does were truly appalling.
Part of the problem is that there are few programmes for Commonwealth studies in the universities of the Commonwealth. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London has soldiered on virtually alone in this field for many years, and it is taking on new programmes, more students and a new vigour. It also recently established the Emeka Anyaoku chair in Commonwealth studies. The Commonwealth's greatest problem is its low profile. It has not been widely understood that there is a great deal to be gained by comparative and cooperative Commonwealth studies.
The commission proposed an Association for Commonwealth Studies to nourish the professional and intellectual underpinnings of this conglomeration, but this has been slow to emerge. It is not easy to organise and launch an international body with no money and a voluntary staff. But its eventual founding conference in Halifax in May examined both the state of the Commonwealth and questions of common concern in the field of public health, through papers presented from five continents.
The Commonwealth offers great value to its members and to the rest of the world. But that value could be lost if its qualities are not made better known and understood through appropriate educational programmes and activities. There is much to be gained, for everyone, by the fostering of education in and about the Commonwealth. And it can often be gained at relatively little cost in comparison with that of ignorance, armaments, disease or other blights that can thrive unchecked when education and research are not enabled to do their job.
The Commonwealth's important educational work needs a strong injection of vitality. It is a widely shared hope that this 15th education ministers' conference will mark a turning point in the Commonwealth's attitude towards education as one of its functions; that there will be a movement away from treating educational activity as an amiable something to be given modest support or, when confronted with other pressures, to be treated with benign neglect.
Instead, the educational functions of the Commonwealth need to be recognised as one of its fundamental and most valuable fields of endeavour.
Founding president of Trent University, Canada, and of the Association for Commonwealth Studies