Scholarship funding cuts have appalled academics and students alike

The Government has announced that it is cutting the funding of both Commonwealth and Chevening scholarships

For Canadian-born Dr Heather Bell, winning a Commonwealth scholarship to do a DPhil in the UK was "transformative – professionally, academically and personally".

Academically, it allowed her to study with the world expert on her DPhil topic, on which she published a book. Professionally, it helped to secure her a job at the consultancy firm McKinsey, which identified scholarship winners as a good source of recruits; and personally, it landed her a husband, a fellow-academic whom she met on her second day as a student at Oxford University.

It later also proved a boon for Oxford, where, in March last year, she became its first director of international strategy. In this role, she now faces the fallout from a government announcement that means Commonwealth scholarships will no longer be available to her present-day equivalent. From 2009, the contribution made by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to these scholarships – now £2.05m a year – will be cut, meaning that students from developed Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, will no longer be eligible for them.

On top of that, the £32,289,000 budget for the Chevening scholarship programme, which now funds around 1,370 students identified as future leaders from all over the world, is also to be slashed next year by nearly 25 per cent.

The decision has caused an outcry among many in higher education, prompting seven written Parliamentary Questions on the issue, an Early Day Motion, tabled by the Tory MP Tim Boswell, and protest letters from a number of vice-chancellors to the Foreign Secretary. Representatives from Universities UK met the Foreign Office minister Jim Murphy last week to discuss their concerns.

Particularly vocal are the Russell Group universities, where most of the Commonwealth scholars study. Last year, Oxford alone welcomed 77 new Chevening and 27 Commonwealth scholars. "Many of my colleagues in the university are dismayed, and I personally am hugely dismayed," says Dr Bell. "The scholarships in question have been a rich source of talented students for Oxford."

Just how talented are the scholarship students, who come to study at Oxford and elsewhere, is clear from what they go on to do after graduating. Commonwealth scholarship alumni include George Brandis, who was minister for arts and sport in Australia; Michael Cullen, deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand; and Hakki Atun, former Prime Minister and Minister of Education in Northern Cyprus. In education, they have included several heads of higher-education institutions, including George Bain, former president of Queen's University, Belfast, and the former principal of the London Business School. Dame Bridget Ogilvie, former director of the Wellcome Trust in the UK, was a Commonwealth scholar, as was the radiologist Michael Sage, and the writer and broadcaster Germaine Greer.

Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of City University, who was a Commonwealth scholar at Clare College, Cambridge and then King's College London in the early Eighties, says that, in the short term, the experience helped to secure him a job as a tutor in music back in Australia, and laid the basis for his PhD. "In the longer term, was there a return on investment? – well, I came back after 25 years and am running one of Britain's best-placed universities, so I hope I am giving good RoI. Academically, it set me up with many acquaintances who still remain research colleagues."

He has mixed feelings about the news that money for the scholarships is to be cut. "It is very sad that the opportunities for the old Commonwealth countries to send their young scholars is reduced," he says. "But these countries have themselves sometimes pushed away, as well, so it is not all on one side."

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, announced in March that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was to cut £10m from its contribution to international scholarship schemes to free up money for programmes to combat climate change. But he argued that it was time to change the way these schemes operated anyway. The number of postgraduate students coming to the UK from outside the EU had gone up by 160 per cent over the past 12 years, he said, with many British universities actively marketing themselves to overseas students, including offering their own scholarships.

He continued that it was therefore necessary "to focus on the value-added from the FCO's scholarship schemes". This he identified as "the creation of relationships between the UK and the international leaders of the future". Reviews, he said, had identified weaknesses in the schemes. Their purpose had not always been clear, the students chosen had not always been those most likely to become international leaders, the desire for quantity of students had sometimes overcome desire for quality, and selection and support of students was not as good as it could be.

The upshot was that, while the Department for International Development would continue to support the Commonwealth scholarship scheme for students from developing countries, the FCO would restrict its scholarship contributions to the Marshall scheme for students from the US, and Chevening for the rest of the world. In future, scholarships would focus "on those countries such as China and India that are going to be most important to our foreign-policy success over coming years", said Miliband, and heads of mission would become personally responsible for making sure scholars had future leadership potential.

But John Tarrant, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which provides the secretariat for the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, argues that these decisions have been made on the wrong grounds. First, criticisms made in reviews of the scheme applied only to Chevening, he claims, not to the Commonwealth scholarships. Moreover, he argues that Commonwealth scholarships are no less likely to produce future leaders than Chevening. In fact, he suggests their selection processes are more rigorous, involving academic experts in the UK rather than relying on Civil Servants.

He is also concerned by the suggestion that the UK should award scholarships for overseas students to attend British universities for altruistic and political rather than for academic reasons. "It isn't about the UK providing these scholarships, it's about providing a mechanism to persuade high-quality doctoral students to come to the UK, and about maintaining academic and professional contacts with really high-quality people into the future," he says.

This is why the changes have caused such upset in universities, which are facing increasing competition to attract top international students. The Prime Minister's Initiative for International Education, a five-year plan launched in 2006 to promote the UK as a leader in international education, explicitly recognised the challenges they face.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, argues that the cuts seem to contradict the initiative. "Many scholarship students go on to be leaders in their fields and maintain invaluable links with our universities, and the UK as a whole," she says. "This decision means they will study elsewhere, which will be a real blow to the UK's reputation."

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, argues that while the cuts won't save much for the Exchequer in the short term, they could have significant long-term costs in undermining the strength of the UK on the global stage in terms of innovation and academic partnerships.

What particularly concerns critics is the effect on top-level science, which is experiencing a steep decline in the number of doctorate students from the UK. Unlike Commonwealth scholarships, the Chevening programme does not cover PhD students, and only a small percentage of the Masters students it covers are studying science.

Dr Bell says that there is already a big competitive gap between American universities, where students can attend a fully funded PhD programme, and British universities, which cannot offer the same. "It's a real issue for us," she says. "To have a high-prestige, high-value, academically rigorous scholarship scheme cut sends the wrong signal and makes the gap that much wider."

Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, says it is important to remember that most scholarships are provided by universities themselves, so international students won't be entirely bereft. But he warns that the UK is already seen as an expensive place to study. "If it is to continue to retain its reputation as a welcoming destination, it is essential that we maintain a generous level of scholarship provision," he says. "In that context, this is a sad move."

Also galling for the universities is that seven years ago, they agreed to subsidise fees for Chevening scholars on the understanding that their numbers would increase from 2,000 to 3,000 per year. This year, the number of students was under 2,000, and once the cuts are implemented, they are expected to fall to nearer 900.

To make matters worse, next year is actually the 50th anniversary of the start of the Commonwealth scholarship scheme. To mark the anniversary, a huge fundraising effort is being launched to enable developing countries to offer their own Commonwealth scholarships. Fundraisers now face trying to secure donations from alumni from the richer Commonwealth countries, while telling them that the scheme under which they benefited themselves has been scrapped.

Michael Spence, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, who can doubtless expect to be one of those alumni tapped for a donation, says that the scheme should continue in its current form.

"It is not simply an aid programme," he says. "It constitutes a real intellectual exchange between the young people of countries committed to working together globally, and Britain's support for the programme is something of which it should be proud."

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software Developer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing software co...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate / Digital Account Exe...

Guru Careers: Junior Designer / Design Graduate

£18k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Junior Designer / Design Graduate to join...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick