montage of Commonwealth Scholarship promotion photos[Photos: Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.]

[These excerpts are from an article appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]


When in 1960 a young Barbadian historian, Woodville Marshall, was casting around for funds to complete his PhD, he came across the brand-new Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. His award enabled him to get his doctorate at Cambridge and launched him into an academic career, even though Cambridge was such a poor place to study nineteenth-century Caribbean history that he got more help by correspondence with Elsa Goveia, back at the University of the West Indies, than from the Cambridge professoriate. Although the scholarship plan was new, Marshall was following a long line of students from the Caribbean. The boats of the West Indian trade brought the sons of the plantocracy to study in Britain and, from the eighteenth century, small numbers of black Caribbeans for the same purpose. They were followed from the early nineteenth century by doctors and lawyers from Sierra Leone, and the students from India, including Gandhi and Nehru, who numbered in their hundreds by the First World War.

The architects of the scholarship plan had grand ambitions: to use higher education to bind together the new Commonwealth that was emerging from the old empire. After 60 years it is possible to assess how successful they were and, providing a context for that assessment, to ask what role the movement of students has played within the changing Commonwealth, and how far the plan has exemplified that role or survived despite changes within it.


International Students in the Commonwealth: Expansion and Constraint

University cooperation within the empire, and the exchange of students between its universities, went back to the nineteenth century when universities in Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa were created in the British mould. Empire universities met in 1912 and created what became the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Links between them were one of the drivers that took students to Britain and kept the overseas numbers around 10% of the total in British universities for much of the twentieth century.


The Commonwealth’s Plan: Launch and Survival

The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan had been launched within the optimistic thirty years in ‘a period of confidence and expansion – for both scholarships and the Commonwealth’. Numbers built up quickly in its first years so that by 1966 there were more than 1,000 scholars and fellows holding awards, with Britain hosting the largest numbers, followed by Canada, Australia and India. By this time all Commonwealth member countries had sent students abroad under the plan, apart from the Maldives, Papua New Guinea and more surprisingly Lesotho, despite the presence of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland on its Roma campus. Although the plan had been couched in terms of Commonwealth cohesion and mutual support, in practice most students were following the well-worn postwar routes from developing to industrialised countries. At the same time, the exchange of scholars and fellows within the rich Commonwealth countries always involved significant numbers. In 1966 Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand sent 133 scholars and fellows abroad, most of them to one of these same countries. Developing Commonwealth countries also offered awards, and there was a limited amount of north-south and south-south travel. But even when awards were offered in the south, it was difficult to find applicants, partly because of the sense of prestige, in which a Toronto or Oxford degree will trump one from Delhi or Ibadan, partly because of the practical difficulty of providing timely information round the Commonwealth in pre-internet days.


CSFP: Decline but Not Fall

Despite the boom in the number of mobile students after 1990, and the economic and political arguments deployed in their encouragement, the Commonwealth plan ran into difficulties in its main host countries. The total number of scholars and fellows on award reached a peak in the late 1980s and a subsequent fall. Difficulties never came singly. Alike in Australia, Britain and Canada the plan was now predominantly funded by aid ministries which were switching support from higher to basic education.


Politics always drove international student mobility. The politics of empire drove Indian students to Britain, the politics of the cold war drove the recruitment of African and Asian students to the United States and the Soviet Union, the politics of European integration drove the establishment of ERASMUS. While the politics of Commonwealth cohesion drove the establishment of its plan, as the Commonwealth’s economic and political influence declined, so student exchange within the Commonwealth became less important than exchanges outside it; today, with the exception of New Zealand, Commonwealth students make up only a quarter to a third of the overseas total in all its major host countries. Language now looks more significant as a driver than Commonwealth membership: Malaysian universities attract by teaching in English, rather than by being in the Commonwealth while, in Europe, Dutch universities more than tripled their international enrolments in ten years as they moved further towards teaching in English.

The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan survived, but in a modified and shrunken form. In 1971 its scholars made up around 7% of the Commonwealth total in Britain, a figure that has now fallen to about 1%. Britain committed itself to funding half the total number of awards and now provides nearly all of them. The plan’s existence is justified not in terms of Commonwealth cohesion but of its contribution to development, a change of emphasis facilitated by the original commitment to flexibility.

Hilary Perraton is with the University of the Third Age, Cambridge, UK.