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Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Scheme

Lord Luce asked Her Majesty’s Government why they propose to end the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Scheme relating to the whole Commonwealth.

The noble Lord said: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for replying to this debate and noble Lords who are contributing to it. Looking round the Room, I can see noble Lords of great distinction. I was going to describe them as heavyweights, metaphorically, but a very powerful team in any event. I am sure that the Minister will see the importance that we attach to this subject. I declare an interest as a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State and a former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

The purpose of the debate is to test the commitment of Her Majesty's Government to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Scheme, particularly in the light of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary’s Statement in another place on 13 March, when he announced that Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for the Commonwealth scholarships of the eight developed countries of the Commonwealth would be terminated and that Chevening scholarships would be very substantially reduced.

As many will know, the Commonwealth scholarships are financed mainly by the Department for International Development, which is financing about £17 million a year for developing countries and, until very recently, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was financing £2 million for the eight developed countries of the Commonwealth. The scheme was launched in 1959, so next year is its 50thanniversary. There have been no fewer than 26,000 awards by Commonwealth countries since 1959, of which Britain has provided 17,000. It is worth noting that 1,000 United Kingdom students have benefited from the scheme in other Commonwealth countries. It has now been supplemented by a 12-week fellowship programme for professional people in the public sector, and there is also a distance learning element.

The distinctive features of this scheme are that, first, it gives long-term links for the United Kingdom with leaders in all walks of life in the Commonwealth. Secondly, it is important in helping to weld the Commonwealth together. Thirdly, it has a high reputation for excellence, with a rigorous selection procedure. The two key points are academic merit, which is very important for any scholarship scheme, and identifying, where possible, leadership potential. On balance, the schemes have been 60 per cent for taught Masters and 40 per cent for doctorates, although I know the desire is to increase the number of doctorates.

If we look at the list of the alumni, we see a remarkable record of leadership right across the board, including top judges, vice-chancellors and deputy prime ministers. In Canada, for example, the governor of the Bank of Canada and the present Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet are alumni. The list goes on and on and is a very impressive indication of the calibre of the scheme.

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A survey published yesterday shows that 70 per cent of all those who are awarded these scholarships maintain vigorous links with their country of origin. There is therefore a very important link between the country, the host and the recipient country. Last night I had the pleasure of meeting a number of serving scholars gathered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are very impressive people of great calibre from Africa, Asia and all over the Commonwealth.

How has this gone wrong, if I may put it that way? If we go back a year, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting took place in Uganda. The Prime Minister took a formidable team of Ministers with him and placed great importance on the Commonwealth during that meeting. On 18 December, the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister in charge of the Commonwealth for Her Majesty's Government, wrote me a letter. He said:

“The Commonwealth today is as important to the UK as ever. It has a unique role to play and is well placed to take action and move the debate forward on issues of global importance, such as climate change, development, education and trade”.

The Minister continued:

“You mention the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contribution to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. I am pleased to tell you that we have decided to maintain our commitment for 2008/09 at the same amount as this year (£2.05 million)”.

Subsequently, we were told—and I am glad—that a little extra money would go to the developing countries scheme through the Department for International Development. Then the bombshell came on 13 March in the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary’s Statement. When one looks at that Statement, not by any stretch of the imagination can one regard it as his finest moment. He announced a switching of £10 million from the Commonwealth scholarship scheme to support new priority programmes on climate change—first, by ending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s scheme for developed countries altogether and, secondly, by reducing substantially the Chevening scholarship scheme while saying that it could pick up some of the developed countries of the Commonwealth’s scholarships.

The Foreign Secretary said that there had been a reduced focus on quality in the Commonwealth scheme and that we needed to create relationships with potential international leaders. However, it was subsequently revealed that there had been no proper review of the scholarship scheme, no proper analysis and no co-ordination or consultation with other departments— or, indeed, with the outside world, the universities and other Commonwealth countries. In other words, the situation rapidly seemed to become an unholy muddle. It gave a damaging signal on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the scheme, and before the launch next year of the Commonwealth scholarship endowment scheme, that Her Majesty's Government were not fully committed to the scheme or to the value of the Commonwealth, of which this scheme is a litmus test.

In the following months, it became evident that not only was the Chevening scheme being cut substantially, but the Marshall scheme was being cut in real terms. Indeed, in August, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but not for Wales or Scotland, announced plans to end the overseas research student award scheme and to pull out, by 2011, £15 million a year of support for a large number of overseas students.

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By then, a serious message had been given that Her Majesty's Government no longer attached importance to international scholarships. There have been widespread protests in Parliament in recent months. From Canada, the Speaker of the Senate, Mr Kinsella, wrote to a number of noble Lords pointing out that Canada was to lose the 1,500 scholarships that it had under the scheme. On 14 July, former Secretary-Generals and former Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth wrote a robust letter condemning the ending of this aspect of the scheme.

At the end of September, the Foreign Secretary owed the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr Denham, a drink because he realised how much damage had been done by the Foreign Secretary’s decision and announced that he had agreed to contribute £400,000 per annum for two years to partially restore the Commonwealth scholarships for developed countries, provided that the funding was matched by university participation and partnership. To indicate the importance that they attach to these scholarships, 70 universities have agreed to take part. So the scheme has been partially restored and will offer about half the number of scholarships that we had hitherto.

I end by asking the Minister four key questions. First, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, will he reaffirm their commitment to the importance of the Commonwealth? Secondly, to give substance to that commitment, will the Minister give assurances that the comprehensive scholarship scheme of the Commonwealth will continue for the foreseeable future; will the Government take the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of the scheme to give it renewed vigour; and will they pledge to donate in 2009 to the new Commonwealth-wide endowment scheme?

Thirdly, will he reiterate Her Majesty's Government’s recent commitment to the importance of British universities competing internationally as centres of excellence? To help to do that, will the Government agree on the need to fuel the expansion of postgraduate research, in which 40 per cent of all students are international? This requires a coherent and consistent financial commitment by the Government to international scholarships, working in partnership with universities and the private sector. It is an ideal opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that they will revive faith and commitment in the scholarship schemes.

Finally, to give coherence to all of this, will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's Government are now pulling the strands together across departments and with universities? I understand that a working party has been established. It would be helpful if the Minister could say what its terms of reference are and whether that is its purpose. I look forward to hearing what he says.

5.11 pm

Lord Anderson of Swansea: It is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce, who is much admired in this House and in the Commonwealth. I wholly adopt the various points that he made, particularly in respect of a government contribution to the proposed

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endowment scheme. Although I adopt all that he has said, that would never stop anyone adding a few additional reflections.

The first of them is: what does the decision in March tell one about this country’s commitment to the Commonwealth generally? When I joined the Diplomatic Service in 1960, there was a separate Commonwealth Relations Office. Indeed, a close friend with whom I shared a flat enjoyed saying that he was the last PPS of the PUS of the CRO, which confused many people at the time. Since then, due to many other factors, the weight of the Commonwealth in our foreign policy formulation has diminished, and there are a number of pointers that the Commonwealth is today perhaps considered as an afterthought, not as a substantial resource for us and an important tool in our international relations.

I know of no other precedent for separating the Commonwealth in this way. I have served on the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for a large number of years. It would be quite inconceivable for the CPA or any other Commonwealth institution to separate the Commonwealth in this way. Relatively small sums were saved; it breached a principle; and the roll call of the alumni, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, is most impressive, hence the welcome increase in DfID funding which followed the upsurge of concern about the decision.

My second reflection is: what does the decision tell us about this joined-up Government? We know that the first decision in March was that the scholarships should be abandoned for the developed countries. The second decision, taken in September, was a partial restoration of the scholarships, due to the initiative of another department. Surely, that better solution could have evolved from interdepartmental discussion and debate before the first decision. Was no civil servant or Minister prepared to think creatively before that decision and consult on a co-funding basis with universities, which, as is clear from their response, value the scheme?

My third and final reflection is this: it is clear that there is a case for learning lessons, looking at a longer-term funding solution and in the round at scholarship schemes. I know that my noble friend Lord Montgomery was ready to make a contribution about the Chevening scholarships in Latin America, but I make it on his behalf as he is not able to be here now. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, there is a clear need for a fresh commitment from the Government to the international scholarship scheme, a need to look at the range of scholarships and to look at the departmental responsibility for the scholarships in the round, because this exercise shows, if nothing else, the way in which several government departments have been involved. Let there be much greater integration within Whitehall in this most important field. I congratulate yet again the noble Lord.

5.15 pm

Lord McNally: I echo the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for bringing this matter before us. I shall try to be helpful to the Minister because I know that he is a decent man. I hope that by the end of my remarks I will have made a suggestion that will help him forward because, even by now, he must have

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realised that he has drawn the short straw today. If he has not, he should look again at the list of speakers and perhaps remember the wise advice of Denis Healey that when you are in a hole, stop digging.

As has been pointed out, this decision shows no sign whatever of joined-up government. When you see an alphabet soup of departments—DIUS, FCO, DfID—you wonder where the decision is coming from. One has to look only at the Statement by the Foreign Secretary on 13 March:

“As we reviewed our schemes we found a number of weaknesses. The purpose of scholarship schemes has not always been clear””.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/08; col. 23WS.]

Yet on the Downing Street website now it states that the Government regard the Commonwealth scheme as good and well run. So an element of confusion is compounded by the fact that there was no consultation with external bodies, including the universities, and no meaningful impact assessment before this decision was taken.

I worry sometimes about what I call “bean counter” foreign policy making, where these hard realists take decisions to write off whole countries and areas of policy because the real concentration now has got to be on China or whatever is top of the pops at the moment. I believe that foreign policy is part heart, guts and instinct as well as bean-counter calculations. For example, I have been wholly committed to European membership for 40 years, but I have also always thought that one of the great gifts we can take into the European adventure is the wonders of the Commonwealth connection. I wonder about the thinking that suggests that we are going to focus on picking leaders. About 30 years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral and I were on a group that modestly called itself the Atlantic Association of Young Political Leaders. I sometimes think that picking political leaders is a dangerous game; perhaps you are picking the teachers of political leaders.

I worry that we see this contact purely in terms of development. That is a mistake as well. It is massively to our interests that we have scholars and students from developed Commonwealth countries. I want to see young New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, Bahamians or whatever on that list and coming into our system—not only for their benefit, but because it gives immeasurable benefit to British students to have that contact with a wide range of Commonwealth students.

I hope that the Minister will think very hard about this. As has been indicated, there has been some rowing back but, looking forward, we would like to see a positive approach to the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth scholarship programme and a long-term commitment to funding.

I did say that I was going to be helpful. In the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on a survey of public attitudes, the key priority for improvement from Ministers, as identified by the public, was owning up to mistakes. So tonight the Minister has a wonderful chance to be in total empathy with public opinion by owning up to what has clearly been a very bad mistake.

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5.20 pm

Lord Wright of Richmond: I start with an apology. When I put my name down to speak in this short debate, I fully expected that it would have concluded by six o’clock. In view of the change in timing, I fear that I may have to leave for an unalterable commitment by 6.15. If that happens, I hope that the Minister and your Lordships will forgive me.

I propose to speak briefly. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for drawing attention to a problem that appears to reflect a shocking lack of co-ordination between departments. I presume—although I hope that the Minister will confirm this—that the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary’s regrettable decision announced on 13 March was driven solely by financial pressures on the inadequate Diplomatic Service budget, rather than reflecting any lack of commitment to commonwealth scholarships or, indeed, the Commonwealth. As a former head of the Diplomatic Service, I confess to a feeling of shame regarding my own department that it fell to two other departments—the Department for International Development and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—to rescue it from an act of sheer diplomatic folly. It must surely have been realised in advance of Mr Miliband’s announcement that one effect of turning these scholarships over to DfID would be to reverse the long-established principle that they should be available to citizens of all member countries, not only to the poorest.

I was made acutely aware of the importance that at least one of our Commonwealth friends and allies attached to these scholarships when I attended an Anglo-Canadian seminar in Cambridge a few weeks ago. Attention was drawn to the large number of distinguished and influential Canadians who have benefited from these scholarships in the past and the importance which Canada, as one of our Commonwealth friends who would have been affected by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary’s Statement, continued to attach to the Commonwealth scheme. It was acknowledged that there had been some rethinking of the Foreign Secretary’s decision as a result of another department’s initiative. Was there any consultation with our diplomatic posts abroad or, indeed, with other Commonwealth Governments, before the Foreign Secretary announced his decision? If not, why not?

5.22 pm

Lord Wilson of Tillyorn: I first declare an interest as chancellor of the University of Aberdeen—a non-financial interest, I may say. There is so much expertise among noble Lords here that I thought that perhaps in the short time available to me I should concentrate on just two specific areas. One is Hong Kong—I shall explain why in a moment—and the other Scotland, because of my position at Aberdeen.

Hong Kong is, of course, no longer a member of the Commonwealth, but it is a very interesting historical example. From the start of the scheme in 1959 until 1997, when Hong Kong was no longer a member of the Commonwealth, 400 scholars from Hong Kong came to the UK. About 100 went elsewhere in the world; interestingly, about 120 went to Hong Kong

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from elsewhere, showing that one aspect of this Commonwealth scholarship scheme was the two-way flow, which is very useful indeed.

What would be the historical lesson from that? Those who came on the scholarships, to the UK and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, helped to cement over a long period relationships between Hong Kong and the Commonwealth, which remain strong now. That has been for the benefit of Hong Kong, then and now, in helping to create Hong Kong as the international city which is its very essence.

Furthermore, I argue that it would be of benefit to mainland China, of which Hong Kong is now a part, if the better-informed leaders in China realised the value of those historical Commonwealth connections. Incidentally, they are very strong in the universities. Finally, it is of great historical and continuing significance in the relationship with the United Kingdom. Therefore, there is the historical example of Hong Kong, where there have been numerous scholarships and they have been wholly beneficial to those three different parties.

I turn briefly to Scotland. At the moment, there are 66 scholars in Scotland, 12 of them in Aberdeen, and they have also benefited from distance learning, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Luce. That has been a major part of the scheme. Most of the scholars in Scotland have been from the academic world—as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, they have been the teachers of the future leaders—but there has also been a considerable number of future leaders. The Deputy Prime Minister to whom my noble friend Lord Luce referred, is, I think, the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, or was until some two weeks ago. That is a very good example of a political leader, and there have been other political leaders from around the Commonwealth whose names it would be wrong to list. Of the 66 scholars who are currently on this scheme in Scotland, only one is from the developed Commonwealth.

That brings me to the general point to which other noble Lords have referred. It is a good thing that the Department for International Development is continuing the scheme for the underdeveloped, or developing, Commonwealth. It is good in a way that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has picked up the dropped ball from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is continuing for a short period a scheme for those coming from the developed Commonwealth. However, like other noble Lords, it seems to me enormously important that there should continue to be Commonwealth scholars from the developed Commonwealth as well as from the developing Commonwealth, and that we should, as the Foreign Secretary said in that Statement in March, try to identify future leaders. That will be valuable to their countries and to us. However, even though the scheme for the developed Commonwealth has been reprieved for a short time, I cannot believe that you can run a decent scholarship scheme if it lasts for only a year or two. It just does not work like that.

Like other noble Lords, I finish by saying that I hope that, in replying, the Minister will assure us all that there will be continuity in this scheme, as well as some joined-up government, so that, wherever it comes from, there will be continuing funding.

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5.27 pm

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Like other noble Lords in this short debate—I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Luce for having made it possible—I consider the Government’s original decision to exclude from the future scope of the Commonwealth scholarship scheme citizens from countries which used to be called the “old Commonwealth” to have been short-sighted and contrary to the interests of our own country, as well as being deeply offensive to, and resented by, the Governments of the countries concerned. I only hope that the Minister will find better arguments to justify the Government’s action than his colleagues have hitherto been able to muster. The Foreign Secretary’s justification of the decision as a switch to expenditure on climate change, although laudable in itself, was as clear a case of apples and oranges as I have ever heard.

I should like to cast my net rather wider than the Commonwealth scholarship scheme and look also at the impact on the Marshall scholarship scheme for US citizens. That has been the object of similar damaging attempts at cheese-paring, to which this latter scheme has been subjected. The 2009-10 funding for Marshall scholarships is being held at the same figure as for 2008-09. That means a substantial reduction in real terms and a reduction in the number of Marshall scholarships which the Government are funding, thus continuing a process of reduction in that figure over several years. If there is no increase in this figure in future years, even more serious damage will be inflicted. I hope that the Minister will not try to mask these reductions in government-funded places by lumping them together with scholarships funded by the private sector, as was attempted in replies to Questions in the House some months ago.

Quite apart from the singular lack of generosity epitomised by these cuts in a scholarship scheme designed as a way of thanking the US people for the Marshall Plan, the timing of these cuts is pretty breathtakingly obtuse. After eight years of considerable strain in the transatlantic relationship and a lamentable rise in feelings of anti-Americanism in this country, a new president has been elected in the United States who is committed to repairing the damage caused by his predecessor and to reaching out to America’s friends and allies, among whom, I imagine, this country figures. We choose that moment to reduce, in real terms, the financing for a scheme designed to achieve precisely those objectives. I really do not envy the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary having to defend those cuts when first meeting President Obama or his as yet unnamed Secretary of State. It could prove singularly embarrassing to do so.

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