A consultative meeting at the recent Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Ghana gave university representatives from across the Commonwealth an opportunity to air their views on the present operation and visibility of the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan or CSFP, and offer ideas for its future development.
Over 34,000 people have benefitted from the international academic initiative since it was created by Commonwealth education ministers at their first conference in 1959, according to a conference background paper. Many of the plan’s beneficiaries today occupy strategic posts in both the private and public sectors of their countries.
According to information presented at the meeting, there is strong support from member governments and national nominating agencies for the scholarship scheme.
A survey of national ‘nominating agencies’ confirmed this – “all 36 respondents considered the scheme ‘prestigious’ and 34 of these ‘relevant to the needs of my country’. There was slightly less support for the proposition that ‘selection and nomination procedures are clear’,” said the background paper.
The initiative’s fundamental aim has been to finance masters and PhD students from the Commonwealth who, after completing their studies in the United Kingdom, would return home primarily as teachers and researchers in tertiary institutions. The scheme is an integral part of higher education manpower development.
While the vast majority of the scholarships have been funded by host governments, universities have also played a role by hosting and identifying recipients, serving as a major employer of beneficiaries and, in some cases, co-funding awards.
Ideas and views discussed at the consultative meeting in Ghana, chaired by Dr Jonathan Jenkins, ACU director of scholarships, are expected to inform a report to be presented to the CSFP Taskforce.
The taskforce was set up last year under the chairmanship of Professor Crispus Kiamba, former permanent secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology and former vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, to consider how the CSFP could be further expanded and utilised.
The taskforce is expected to report at the end of 2016 to a meeting of Commonwealth education ministers.
Reporting on the progress of the taskforce, Kiamba emphasised the need to reform national agencies in charge of the selection of beneficiaries with a view to making such bodies more transparent and less influenced by local political considerations.
He said among the other issues to be tackled by the taskforce were the following:
- Is there a continuing role for an international scholarship scheme in the name of the Commonwealth?
- What factors should provide coherence to the scheme? Should it reflect any particular values?
- At present, Commonwealth scholarships are primarily aimed at postgraduate level, although some fellowships exist to support mid-career training. Should this emphasis continue?
- In the past, Commonwealth scholarships have been primarily offered and financed by Commonwealth member governments. Is there potential for individual universities, foundations, or private sector bodies to offer scholarships?
- How can it be ensured that Commonwealth scholarships are genuinely Commonwealth-wide? What potential exists to develop more scholarships in developing countries?
- How can scholars and alumni of CSFP be better involved to finance the idea of an international community of Commonwealth scholars?
- Are there ways in which the prestige and international reputation of the scheme could be better enhanced? What additional mechanisms could help publicise the scheme?
- Are new management arrangements needed for the international CSFP? If so, who should be responsible for this?
“Significant efforts have been made in recent years to trace alumni, and evaluate the impact of the scheme,” said the background paper. The Commonwealth Scholarship Commission is now in contact with almost 13,000 of its alumni.
“Many of them have gone on to positions of leadership in all sectors. Predictably, given the proportion of awards for postgraduate (particularly doctoral) study, around half have pursued an academic career.”
Brexit funding fears
The issues were raised against the backdrop of fears among conference participants that the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union might affect the funding of the plan.
Currently, 70% of awards are funded by the United Kingdom and are implemented within UK universities. The UK currently sponsors 850 awards a year on an annual budget of some £25 million (US$33 million).
On the 50th anniversary of CSFP, an endowment fund was created by London with the aim of supporting the cost of Commonwealth scholarships hosted by less developed countries of the Commonwealth.
According to the background paper, the endowment fund is now able to support around 30 masters scholarships at any one time, ensuring that Commonwealth scholarships are now available in countries from Jamaica to Papua New Guinea, from Pakistan to Botswana.
However, the UK remains the dominant host. Other countries, such as India, Malaysia, New Zealand and Malta, also offer Commonwealth scholarships in their own right. In total, awards are available in 18 countries. Australia and, for the past three years Canada, are notable omissions, although both do offer scholarships to Commonwealth citizens through other routes.
Recent years have also witnessed more diversity in the range of scholarship awards.
The United Kingdom government is experimenting with new forms of scholarship awards, including what is called distance learning scholarships which involves splitting scholarships to allow doctoral students from developing countries' universities to undertake some of their studies in the UK, and short-term fellowships for mid-career professionals.
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