Richard Bourne assesses whether the coming Commonwealth education conference will be more than just talk.
One of the biggest but most mysterious international conferences on education begins this weekend in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The 14th Commonwealth education ministers' meeting is now big because it incorporates a large parallel symposium, for academics and non-governmental organisations, and a trade fair which may well turn out to be a money-spinner.
But it is also mysterious. While the exchange of views is the lifeblood of both education and the Commonwealth, patient analysts have difficulty in specifying how the education ministers have changed the actual experience of children, students, teachers and academics in the 54 member countries. When the fifth of these triennial meetings lasted for a fortnight in Australia in 1971, it was notably described as "the case of the conference nobody noticed".
So perhaps the key question in Halifax is whether the proposed statement and action plan will reverse at least two decades of decline in Commonwealth cooperation for education. If it does, it will provide a positive signal for the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the new internet-based networks springing up between specialists in individual university departments.
Earlier this year, the ACU published a report arguing against the marginalisation of universities in many developing countries. It did not challenge the priority for basic education but, in the light of the exploding knowledge economy, concluded that "a country whose universities are allowed to decline is opting out of the development process at the start of the 21st century". It will be critical for higher education to see whether this argument has any impact on ministers, and whether they show any sympathy for the report's proposal for a Commonwealth University Charter, under which universities can define their mission.
The draft statement, Education for our Common Future, calls on the ACU, the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL), the Vancouver-based distance teaching service, and networks of educators to back an action plan for information technology and for cheaper, better learning materials. Much of the plan is concerned with schools, but it also talks of work with examinations bodies to achieve more convergence and portability in qualifications, and a larger, more diverse programme of scholarships, fellowships and exchange schemes. Crucially, it does not assume that all 54 states have to do everything, but encourages cooperation between states, non-governmental organisations and private bodies.
The two areas of most immediate interest to higher education are the CoL and the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. CoL had a sticky patch in the mid-1990s, but is now well-regarded under the leadership of Raj Dhanarajan. With the growth of internet learning, it has more tasks than it can handle and will be seeking support from ministers for a three-year plan from 2000 that is likely to represent no more than a restoration to the level of pledges made in 1994.
The CSFP, undergoing a review by the Department for International Development, has become more flexible over the past few years. There are now split-site doctoral programmes and joint taught masters programmes. But the target for awards set by the previous secretary general, chief Emeka Anyaoku, has been missed by a mile. He had hoped for 2,000 postgraduate awards in the year 2000, but there are only 1,021 holders. A survey of recent beneficiaries has shown that many are already playing prominent roles in academia, the law and other professions, and in public life.
In spite of the success of CoL and the Commonwealth Universities Study Abroad Consortium, which is now managed by the ACU, there will be continued complaint about the impact of full-cost fees on poorer developing countries. Significantly, India, which has held to a low-cost fee regime for overseas students, has been attracting numbers of Africans. The growth of franchise deals, whereby partners of universities in developed countries set up shop in developing ones, does not necessarily guarantee a quality learning experience.
The question for Halifax is whether the English-speaking Commonwealth can be made to matter again for education. It ought to in the globalised world. But too many existing projects are tiny and fail to catch the imagination. Although the British government is sending a delegation of , it will be led by the Scottish minister, Jack McConnell. And though the whole event will be thrown open to television and the press for the first time, the opening day unluckily coincides with Canada's federal election.
A positive outcome is less likely to emerge from the ministers than from the hands-on academics and NGOs in the parallel symposium, and from the Canadian and other IT education firms that will be thronging the trade fair in Halifax.
Richard Bourne is head of the commonwealth policy studies unit at London University's Institute of Commonwealth Studies.