COMMONWEALTH: Does it have a future?

The Commonwealth has its detractors and big questions are again being raised about its future, if any. And not all are from hostile critics.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the relatively new director of the Royal Commonwealth Society has written articles in the UK and, most recently, in Australia, speculating on the demise, sooner or later, of the 60-year-old organisation.

To stand a chance of seeing its 70th birthday, Sriskandarajah suggests the Commonwealth must be more confident about declaring its effectiveness rather than agonising over its failures.

Higher education is one of the unarguable Commonwealth success stories. But even that is barely recognised outside a limited circle of (inevitably ageing) enthusiasts. It is 50 years almost to the day since Commonwealth education ministers and senior university figures met for the first time in Oxford and, among other things, launched one of the organisation's most conspicuous success stories, the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.

The plan has evolved over the past half century into an effective organisation for encouraging student mobility. More than 26,000 students have benefited from awards since the scheme was launched and it has survived a number of crises in its development.

Recently, however, declines have reversed and the average number holding an award has increased by 26% since the 2006 ministerial meeting in Cape Town. The 2007-08 on-award figure of 1,837 surpasses the historic 1993 high of 1,809, though it falls short of the ambitious target of 2,009 set by ministers in 2006.

Up to 12 countries are potential hosts, compared with 14 in 2006, nine in 2003, and six in 2000. But the list is too short for complacency - the need to reinforce the role of the scholarship plan as a Commonwealth-wide institution by instigating awards in a wider range of countries has been recognised at all recent ministerial meetings.

A second conspicuous success story is the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning. Fully operational since 1989, the COL is the world's only intergovernmental organisation dedicated solely to promoting and delivering distance education and open learning, and mandated to be in the vanguard of technological change in education and training.

After a shaky start, COL has a established a solid record for helping the Commonwealth's 53 member nations and their citizens realise widespread access to quality, current education and training under the leadership of its second president, Gajaraj Dhanarajan, and his successor, Sir John Daniel.

The COL has responsibility for another key Commonwealth initiative. The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth will "throw a wide bridge across the digital divide" that separates the wealthy, information-rich first world from poorer, less developed countries.

The COL, the Virtual University and the scholarship plan were aspects of the Commonwealth that received clear support from ministers at the most recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur in June. But there are other less glowing aspects of the Commonwealth's engagement with higher education.

Declining resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat has hit its ability to do more than set the framework. Initiatives are instead devolved to organisations such as the COL or the Association of Commonwealth Universities. But the ACU, effectively led by vice-chancellors, is constrained from activities that would compromise its role as a membership organisation.

To fill the gap, as University World News reported last month (see here), the Kuala Lumpur conference endorsed further exploration of a Commonwealth Tertiary Education Facility to provide advice and assistance to member states and national associations on policy, governance and management issues.

This facility could do things that the ACU and the Commonwealth secretariat could not and preliminary documentation for the Kuala Lumpur conference made a compelling case. But, as time passes, questions are emerging about the extent of the commitment to the project.

One senior Commonwealth figure told University World News that the facility was "kicked into the long grass" in Kuala Lumpur and another said the expected pledge of funding from the Malaysian government had failed to materialise.

Instead the secretariat announced that a coordinating secretariat based at the National Higher Education Research Institute at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang will pick up the project. But it appears no new dedicated staff will be employed and, more than a month later, Professor Morshidi Sirat, Director of the institute, referred an inquiry about its role in the project to the Malaysian Minister of Higher Education.

"I am not privy to the final decisions made at ministerial meetings of the CCEM in Kuala Lumpur recently on CTEF," Sirat said. "It is for the Secretary General to respond to your query."

At the time of writing there has been no response from Dr Zulkefli bin Hassan, the Secretary General. While the report is not due to be delivered until the next ministerial conference in the Bahamas in 2012, the view persists that it is a dead duck.

Efforts are also under way to breathe life into another Commonwealth initiative that came close to a still birth and after a brief existence descended into obscurity. The formation of an Association for Commonwealth Studies was one of the principal recommendations of the Symons Report in 1996.

The response was a crowded public meeting at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies on a stifling Monday in June 1998. It wasn't until 2003 that Professor Symons, founding president of Trent University in Canada, expressed his regret that the ACS had taken so long to come to fruition with an inaugural conference that eventually took place in Halifax in May that year.

Symons wrote that there had 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".

After the first conference, which examined the state of the Commonwealth and questions of common concern in the field of public health, the ACS met again two years later, at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, to discuss the literatures of the Commonwealth.

Little has been heard from the ACS since - although efforts are being made to revive the project. A failure to do so will be just the small but final nail that will make Sriskandarajah's dire predictions come true in the Commonwealth's higher education heartland.