Geographical mobility and the Rhodes Scholarships across the 20th century

Measuring success?

Founded in 1901, the Rhodes Scholarships scheme is one of the longest running programmes of scholarly exchange still in existence and has served as a model for many schemes that have since emerged. As such it offers an ideal context for examining, as well as raising new questions about, the organisation and overall efficacy of scholarship programmes across the twentieth century.

Although never officially stipulated, the Rhodes Trust brought students to Oxford on scholarships, envisioning that they would later return to their home countries and take up public leadership positions. But how far this has actually been the pattern has not yet been systematically examined.

As part of a larger project on the long-term effects of scholarly mobility, Meng-Hsuan Chou (NTU Singapore) and I have been using data published by the Rhodes Trust to measure various outcomes of the Rhodes Scholarships across the twentieth century. Our study is beginning to reveal some striking patterns about the geographic mobility of awardees.

Tracking post-scholarship careers data

Tracking the post-scholarship careers of Rhodes Scholars across all regional constituencies at intervals of ten years between 1913 and 1983, we generated a dataset of 487 scholars with full information on 483. Using the recorded locations of their employment and post-programme study as proxies for geographical mobility, we developed three indicators to make sense of their movements:

a) Those who made their careers at home (jobs were based in the countries of election);
b) Those who made their careers both at home and abroad;
c) Those who principally made their careers outside their country of election.

It was immediately obvious to us that the majority of scholars in the years analysed established their careers in their countries of election, with more than 75% of all cohorts for all coded years making their careers at home, or both at home and abroad. Scholars who established their careers outside of their countries of election, were generally in the minority (around 20-25% of each cohort). However, since 1913 it is evident that the percentage of scholars in this category has been steadily increasing. We believe it is likely that more recent cohorts, especially those from the late 1990s onwards, may have greater geographical mobility patterns than earlier cohorts. This is borne out by the biographic profiles of living scholars recently collated by the Rhodes Trust.

However, one of the difficulties with this aggregated data is that it collapses the particular local and cultural contexts that shape patterns in different countries. To provide more fine-grained differentiation, we have disaggregated the geographical mobility patterns of Rhodes Scholars who have been elected from the US (a dominant cohort, constituting 35-50% of scholars in any one year) in comparison to those who were from regions. The other regions were initially the 'settler colonies' of Southern Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, Jamaica and Germany; and after the Second World War were widened to include India and Pakistan, and a few other countries in Africa and South East Asia.

Patterns in the data

Our analysis has revealed some striking patterns.

First, across all decades Rhodes scholars from the USA have been more likely (about twice as likely) to establish their careers principally at home than their counterparts from other regions. More than 80% of American scholars in all periods returned to the USA after their time at Oxford and never again lived or studied abroad.

Second, and by contrast, overseas experience was highly significant to the careers of non-US Rhodes scholars. For example, while 80% of scholars elected from the US in 1923 built their careers exclusively at home, 70% of scholars from non-US constituencies made time outside their country of origin a part of their post-Oxford career, with nearly 40% basing themselves permanently abroad. For the 1913 cohort the percentage who spent some time abroad after Oxford was approximately 45%, in 1933, 1953 and 1963 it was just over 50% (in 1943 only one student was elected), dropping to about 35% in 1973, before returning to just over 50% in 1983.

Third, the relatively high mobility (compared to other decades) of Non-US scholars elected in 1923 points to the danger of telling a linear story of increasing mobility across the century. Scholars who made their careers before and after the Second World War were much more likely to have overseas experience than those later in the century.

Our initial findings clearly show that awardees from different constituencies have used the Rhodes experience differently in the establishment and consolidation of their professional careers. While US Scholars have utilised it as a platform to pursue a variety of careers principally at home, non-US Scholars have employed the Rhodes programme as a spring-board to careers outside of their home countries. Even our relatively crude disaggregation of US and non-US scholars points to the need to undertake granulated analyses that attend to regional and national context and change over time.

We would caution, however, against making assumptions between these patterns and the notion of 'brain drain'. As several recent studies in other contexts have shown, it is likely to oversimplify the relationship Rhodes scholars have with their countries.

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, Rhodes scholars who were academics maintained strong ties with their home countries, supervising the next generation of leaders and scholars from their countries of origin by hosting their stay abroad (see Pietsch, 2013). These types of impact are only beginning to be discussed in the literature on scholarly mobility. The importance of such intergenerational networks might also be considered in other professional contexts, notably medicine or management consulting. In these instances, rather than acting as the source of 'brain drain', Rhodes Scholars who have made their careers outside their countries of origin have nonetheless still contributed to knowledge mobility and 'brain circulation' – factors that are usually considered to sit at the heart of national innovation.


Dr Tamson Pietsch is an ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939 (Manchester, 2013). Part of her research with Meng-Hsuan Chou on the Rhodes scholarships will appear in Giles Scott Smith and Ludovic Tournès ed., Global Exchanges: Scholarship and Transnational Circulations in the Contemporary World, (Berghahn, 2016).


Measuring success?’ – This blog series draws from the ACU’s experience in scholarship design, administration, and analysis, and our connections in the sector, to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education. New posts are published every three to four weeks, authored by experts from all around the world. Find out more

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Last modified on 21/05/2018
Tags: research, early careers, researcher, funding, PhD, impact, 'Measuring success?' blog series