Higher education: The ultimate ‘Commonwealth advantage’

Commonwealth flags (CREDIT: Image by REUTERS /Yves Herman)
Alex Wright
Alex Wright

Alex Wright is Senior Policy Officer for the ACU, where he specialises in international development, education policy and advocacy, conference design and management. He has led on policy work for several key Commonwealth events, including CCEM and CHOGM, and the ACU's own events, such as a 2016 conference for senior university leaders in Ghana. Prior to joining the ACU, Alex has worked in the Commonwealth Secretariat's Education Unit.

With London hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this week, all eyes have been on the Commonwealth. Over the last two weeks every newspaper in the UK has offered their thoughts on the value of the Commonwealth – is it merely an outmoded relic of empire? Most have viewed the issue through UK eyes, asking questions like can the Commonwealth offer the UK its trading future post-Brexit? And will Prince Charles replace HM The Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth? (Read a sample of these articles here, here, here and here.)

I doubt whether many of these commentators had given much thought to the Commonwealth before the 53 heads of government landed on their doorstep. And I'll bet that fewer still have had any contact with the Commonwealth's official organisations and their workings.

So, what does the Commonwealth offer in today's world? And how does the ACU fit in with all of this? Let me offer my perspectives from having worked in and around Commonwealth-related organisations and political processes for almost 15 years and undertaken work in a dozen or more countries across all regions of the Commonwealth.

A convening power, based on shared values

I have seen the 'official' Commonwealth up close, warts and all. Like all multi-lateral organisations it has its faults, frustrations and peculiarities. Yet, despite reports of its demise, it retains amazing convening power. More than 33 countries were represented at the recent education ministers meeting in Fiji – a far and costly destination for many to reach. So, clearly countries see some value in this grouping.

And the grouping it brings together is unique. Rather than being based on economic status, geography or security (like other international organisations), the Commonwealth is hugely diverse, bridging east, west, north and south. It runs the whole spectrum of economic development and brings some of the most populous emerging economies together with 31 small states.

The grouping is based largely on a shared history, with it inescapable and uncomfortable ties to colonialism and empire. These days, however, the Commonwealth emphasises its shared values. I have heard more speeches than I care to remember proclaiming these shared values, the notion of the Commonwealth as a 'family', and of 'ties that bind'. This is perhaps true – at least some of this is true, some of the time. The emotional attachment to the idea of the Commonwealth and its values is important, but organisations do not survive on sentiment alone. They have to demonstrate practical value and it is here that its critics say the Commonwealth is failing.

In my experience this isn't quite the case. For a start, the Commonwealth is more than just a club of governments. A lot has been made around this week's CHOGM of the Commonwealth's networks. In fact, the Commonwealth has even been described as a 'network of networks' (which the ACU is a part of).

While it is true that the Commonwealth's non-hierarchical and consensus driven model can lead to nowhere in particular, it can, and does on occasion, allow for real progress on contentious issues. A prime example of this is the Commonwealth's influence on the UN Sustainable Development Goal for education. A sharply drawn and timely set of recommendations helped to secure a broad based ambitious goal and set of targets, drawing on the legitimacy of such a wide and diverse membership.

Higher education – a 'Commonwealth advantage'

Talk of 'Commonwealth advantage' often centres around trade, but through higher education there is a clear advantage – one that helps facilitate collaboration and partnerships across our Commonwealth and beyond.

The shared history of the Commonwealth means that universities share a common language of instruction, and commonalities in their qualification systems, and academic and organisational cultures. These common ties are brought to life through the ACU – over 100 years old and with a network of more than 500 (paying) member universities across 50 countries – this scale of membership and longevity is built on more than just sentiment. Rather, it is based on the practical benefits of international collaboration.

We see this every day through the ACU's professional communities, capacity building programmes, and mobility schemes – most notably the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, which we administer on behalf of governments.

Our unique membership helps us broker innovative partnerships, such as the newly created Climate Resilience Network, which is based on a partnership between universities in the Pacific and Caribbean, and was endorsed by education ministers at CCEM in Fiji. The reach of ACU membership also allows us to engage beyond the Commonwealth – for example, the ACU leads various EU-Africa science partnerships. Through these programmes of work, the ACU offers a tangible way of engaging with non-Commonwealth countries, such as Ethiopia, in programmes with their Commonwealth peers.

Ripe for renewal

Renewal of the Commonwealth is a major theme at this week's CHOGM and for the UK's two year period of chair in office. At the ACU we welcome the renewed attention this will bring and hope that new energy will be brought into this unique, and still useful, organisation by its member governments.

Having recently signed the Commonwealth Education Pledge with the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth of Learning, it is our hope that this will create more opportunities for the higher education sector across the Commonwealth to work with agencies and governments for the common good. In turn, we believe that governments should draw on the ACU's thriving networks, significant reach, and collective knowledge and expertise, to ensure the Commonwealth fulfils its potential and delivers a future fit for its growing youth population.

Image by REUTERS /Yves Herman