Gates opening for the leaders of tomorrow

Microsoft's founder has given £120m to Cambridge University to create a scholarship programme whose aim is to counter injustice through strong leadership. Steve McCormack reports

When Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, opened his near-bottomless purse to create the Gates Cambridge scholarships around the turn of the millennium, it presented an enduring shot in the arm for Cambridge University's finances.

Longevity counts. When institutions are compared, prestige is usually linked to age. The top universities - Oxbridge, Durham, UCL - have been around for centuries, and the newer kids on the block have to fight harder for their reputations.

But in the 21st century, money talks too, and even universities with the lengthiest of lineages know financial muscle can be an important factor in securing viability, no matter how rich the pedigree of learning.

There is intense and growing competition among higher education institutions around the world to attract the best research students, to bolster the substance and reputation of academic departments. So money that accompanies the award of a scholarship can often, even at the highest-ranking places, be the crucial factor in attracting a PhD student. Cambridge is well aware that the Gates scholarships play just that role in maintaining the calibre of its top researchers.

Gates, via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, donated $210m (£120m) to Cambridge, to award about 100 scholarships a year in perpetuity, creating a lasting and solid presence in the graduate community.

Of course, this single item of generosity from Gates is dwarfed by the wealth of his foundation as a whole, which is endowed to the tune of £30bn and employs more than 200 people to make grants to hundreds of bodies across the globe.

Now in its fifth year, the Cambridge programme has awarded 527 scholarships, to students from 72 different countries. All applicants have, first, to be offered a research place by one of Cambridge's academic departments. And to qualify for the Gates scholarship they must convince the trustees that they satisfy an additional requirement, best expressed by Gates himself in a recent foreword to the Scholars Yearbook:

"We need highly educated leaders, skilled in research and analysis, who will take a creative approach to defining and solving problems, so that we can address the injustices and inequities that abound in our world," he wrote.

This stipulation is constantly borne in mind by Dr Gordon Johnson, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, in selecting scholars. "We are looking for qualities of leadership," he explains, "and a sense that candidates realise that a good education brings responsibilities to use one's brain to address problems."

But this doesn't, for example, preclude physical scientists or engineers from applying, as long as they can put their proposed work into a human, and not nakedly economic, context.

The foundation stipulates that around 40 per cent of Gates scholars must come from the US, so there are two separate phases of the selection process: an American one, which usually attracts about 500 applicants, and one for the rest of the world, which, on average, attracts five times as much interest. Choosing from such a large and talented field is, says Johnson, a tough task. "The distressing part of the job is that there are always large numbers of people who just don't make it, and chance plays a large part in that."

Those who do succeed receive a hefty financial leg-up to ease their way through their study period: all university and college fees are paid, there's a maintenance allowance of £8,800 a year, plus a possible grant of £2,200 for study-related expenses, and one air fare home for every year the scholar is at Cambridge.

The substance of the financial award contributes to the prestige the scheme is developing for itself. But it is still early days for a sensible comparison to be made with the long-established Rhodes scheme, which brings students from a range of countries to Oxford's dreaming spires, or the Fulbright programme, which sends US students to British institutions.

Neither are there, yet, any Gates alumni with anything approaching the hitting power of young William Jefferson Clinton from Arkansas, who crossed the Atlantic on a Rhodes scholarship in 1968.

Even those in the first tranche of Gates scholars are barely out of research mode yet, and not in positions where they might catch the public eye. However, Johnson is confident that, in time, the quality of scholars will shine through.

"I know of some of our scientists who are very highly thought of, and am also aware of a former scholar who is doing some great things in the medical research field in a tropical country," he says.

At any one time, there are around 250 Gates scholars spread around the Cambridge departments and colleges. A key attraction is the chance to exploit the variety of contacts offered by the university community, but efforts are also made to engender a Gates family feel.

They have their own common room in a central university building and there's a scholars' council that organises communal events and represents individual views to the trust and the university authorities.

Chairing the council is Michael Motto, from the US, who's nearing the end of a criminology PhD, in which he's looking at policing diversity, and focusing on the London and New York forces. He sees the council's work as important for the coherence of Gates scholars during their time at Cambridge and beyond. "We play a large role in making sure that the trust, the scholars and the student body grow into something wider than just a Cambridge phenomenon," he explains.

Another council member, John Prendergast, is an engineer from Ireland, working on the influence of wind on flexible structures. He's responsible for organising lectures by visiting speakers. "We get about 80 or 90 scholars and other interested people along to the lectures, which gives us a profile around Cambridge."

The councils organise an annual orientation camping trip for new arrivals every autumn, something that appears to have solidified the esprit de corps further. But not every scholar leaves with an entirely positive view of this side of the Cambridge experience.

Nushin Arbabzadah, who was born in Afghanistan, but educated in Germany, did an MPhil in Middle Eastern history between 2001 and 2003. She thought the preponderance of American scholars made it difficult for the others to feel part of the community. "Some of them (the US students) tried to use the Gates scholarship to make a name for themselves, appointing themselves as spokesmen and so on, and that was quite annoying," she says. She's also critical of the way in which a lunch visit by Bill Gates was handled.

"He was put on a table surrounded by fellow American students, so he would feel comfortable, presumably, which seemed a lost opportunity for him as much as for anyone else."

Although these reminiscences are a few years old, Johnson does not deny that he has to guard against the American Gates scholars becoming too influential.

"The Americans constitute a very large minority," he explains. "And they've been brought up in a different culture: corporate identity, cheerleading, overtly competitive. That can have awful side effects, and they don't always get it right. It doesn't do any harm to remind people of that."

Andrew Robertson: 'The scholars were incredibly bright - and had amazing amounts of energy'

Andrew Robertson, 28, was a Gates Scholar at Cambridge between 2001 and 2005, having done a first degree, and Master's, at the University of California, San Diego. At Cambridge his research was in molecular biochemistry, focusing on immune systems. He's now back in the US, working as a policy adviser at the US Department of Health and Human Services, concentrating on the international dimension of bird 'flu.

"In the first three months at Cambridge, I had a bad combination of culture-shock and home-sickness. But, after acclimatising, the rest of my time counts among of the best years of my life. Academically, I loved the strong collaborative atmosphere, the open attitude and free exchange of ideas. A real highlight was having my first scientific publication in a peer-reviewed journal, which I managed to squeak out within the first year, with the help of my supervisors.

The Gates side of life was a unique, memorable experience. The scholars were incredibly bright, had amazing amounts of energy, and came from a wide variety of backgrounds. I worked with many of them over the years to build what is now the Gates Scholars Community. This began when a number of us patched together the outline for the first Gates Scholars Council. The council is in its fourth year now, and seems to be the heart of the Gates Community." SMcC

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