Can international scholarships lead to social change?

International scholarships that enable promising young people from developing countries to study at top-rated universities have a long history going back to the early 20th century. They gained momentum after World War II, with the needs of newly independent states to increase their nation-building capacities across all sectors and disciplines.

Largely drawn from the political elites, the majority of these beneficiaries of scholarships, including Rhodes, Fulbright, Commonwealth and Rockefeller fellows, returned to their home countries to take up positions of power and influence.

Their stories have fuelled continued funding for scholarships as a ‘win-win’ proposition, as much for developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the post-Soviet republics as for donor countries seeking opportunities for economic investment and international cooperation.

Yet, in the current climate of hugely expanding demand for higher education, the case for international scholarships as an effective investment for economic development and social change will require some rethinking and improved evidence. Likewise, the programmatic aspects of scholarship programmes need examination to identify ‘best practices’ for achieving their stated goals, particularly for those programmes focused on widening access and training social change leaders.

How can scholarships foster social change?

A newly published book, International Scholarships in Higher Education: Pathways to social change, of which I am co-editor, gathers academic experts and practitioners in the fields of international education and development to present a positive case for international scholarships – yet one which is tempered by limited data on long-term societal impacts.

The book includes illustrative cases of five well-known scholarship programmes – the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program; the Open Society Scholarship Program; the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowship Plan; the Chinese Government Scholarship Program; and the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program.

Two chapters address the specific challenges of access to quality higher education in Africa and India and the limited but pivotal role of international scholarships in accessing first-rate degrees.

Whether or not international scholarships have enabled recipients to “break down barriers and foster social change” is a central question of the book.

The editors have identified five principal ‘pathways’ by which the scholarship opportunity may catalyse change beyond individual achievement. These are:
  • • The ‘change agent’ pathway where individual recipients generate positive social change through personal action with multiplier effects;

  • • The ‘social network’ pathway where networks of scholars and alumni promote change through collective action;

  • • The ‘widening access’ pathway that fosters social mobility through the explicit selection of scholars from underrepresented communities;

  • • The ‘academic diversity’ pathway where scholarship programmes influence universities to be more inclusive of non-traditional students; and

  • • The ‘international understanding’ pathway that creates conditions for enhanced inter-cultural and international communication, tolerance and cooperation.

A literature review based on dozens of scholarship evaluation studies shows compelling evidence of exceptional achievement and influence by international scholarship recipients under conditions of relative political stability and there is some evidence that supportive networks of alumni can help in overcoming more hostile conditions.

However, there is a dearth of academic and evaluation studies to substantiate long-term societal change attributable to scholarship recipients.

Long-term impact

Up until very recently, scholarship programmes have not felt compelled to invest in longitudinal, in-depth post-graduation studies of alumni. This is complicated by difficulties in establishing credible control groups of non-recipients.

Two exceptions are the ongoing 10-year evaluation of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program, administered by the Institute of International Education, and a similar framework for studying the impacts of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program that sponsors high-achieving economically disadvantaged African youth to study abroad and within Africa.

The book examines determinants of social change outcomes through various angles, from the international education experience itself – degrees, fields and methods of study, opportunities for civic engagement and leadership training, to the ‘return’ conditionality and recipients’ trajectories back to their countries of origin.

A chapter that examines the ongoing ‘brain drain’ debate shows that return may be a precondition for effecting long-term societal change in socio-political spheres, whereas diaspora networks and joint ventures can be effective engines of scientific and entrepreneurial advancement that don’t require physical return.

Nevertheless, ‘return’ remains a central concern of scholarship programmes guided by the leadership or change agent theory of change. This has led to increased programme investment in ‘enhancements’ to prepare scholars for successful post-graduation transitions, including internships, small professional development grants and preparation for facing and overcoming periods of professional uncertainty.

The relative effectiveness of these enhancements, as compared to other strategies for supporting scholars, will need further research.

The changing landscape of international higher education

More fundamentally, within the wider landscape of higher education access, costly residential international education is increasingly being supplemented or replaced by hybrid models where degrees are earned at home institutions.

As a result, international scholarships are targeted toward shorter exchanges for specific skills acquisition and research collaboration. New and expanding regional hubs of higher learning, principally in Asia and the Middle East, are increasingly attractive to students seeking quality degrees at less cost.

Massive government scholarship programmes funded by China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Mexico and Brazil, among others, in large part obviate the return issue by requiring physical return and in most cases creating positive return conditions.

Finally, the revolution in online education, including massive open online courses or MOOCs, is perhaps the most effective current instrument for ‘widening access’ to post-secondary education despite a host of associated quality and cost issues.

Undoubtedly, there is a need for an expanding set of options to meet the growing and urgent global need for quality post-secondary education, particularly for less developed countries aspiring to knowledge- and technology-based economic development.

International scholarships are one of the options that have a long and successful history of expanding opportunity, intellectual capabilities and international understanding – qualities more important in the 21st century than ever before.

This is acknowledged in the United Nation’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goal 4b: “By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries … for enrolment in higher education”, which is likely to positively influence scholarship investment decisions in the near term.

But for the longer term, a community of academics and practitioners, many of whom have contributed to this book, must join forces to provide more and better evidence demonstrating the unique benefits of international scholarships in their myriad forms, in particular, through a commitment to longitudinal studies that can improve programming, scholar support and post-graduation social impacts.

Robin Marsh is senior researcher and socio-economist at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, University of California, Berkeley, USA.

Dassin, J, Marsh, R and Mawer, M (eds) (2018).
International Scholarships in Higher Education: Pathways to social change is published by Palgrave Macmillan: New York.