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The soft power of government-funded scholarship schemes – how to measure impact?

Published on 29 July 2016
Robin Hart

Robin Hart is Director of Programmes and the Sir Heinz Koeppler Fellow at Wilton Park, UK. Her current portfolio of conferences includes: global health issues (both disease specific such as HIV/AIDs, malaria and strengthening health systems); disaster prevention and humanitarian responses; education and skills training; food security, agriculture and land use. In addition, Robin organises a selection of young leaders programmes, including the annual British-German Forum and Caribbean 2030, and she chaired a Chevening alumni meeting in Georgia in 2015.

Before joining Wilton Park in 1996, Robin was an analyst, researcher, trainer, and liaison officer at the Ministry of Defence. Robin read History at Exeter University (BA Hons).

International scholarships offer huge benefits to the sponsoring country; scholars are an important source of talent, skills, and diverse perspectives. Scholarships are also effective tools in promoting and enhancing a country's soft power, by investing in future leaders, providing access and equity to higher education, and increasing research excellence.

However, beyond recognising an individual scholar's pure academic achievement, evaluating and measuring the long-term soft power impacts of government-funded scholarships is not easy. But it is increasingly important to quantify, in order to make a strong case for continued government investment.

A scholar's experience of their study abroad is often life enhancing, and can be life changing. Based on these experiences, many scholars want to give something back to the host country on their return home. More should be made of this by the host sponsor, through tracking alumni and maximising their long-term contribution to both the scholarship programme and the host country.

These were some of the key reflections from a recent meeting on international scholarships organised by Wilton Park and the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Developing the scholarship experience: what more can be done?

The UK government has three main scholarship schemes: Chevening (mostly towards one-year Masters), Commonwealth Scholarships (mostly for full postgraduate studies) and Marshall Scholarships. By uprooting themselves and moving to the UK for at least a year, scholars benefit from an immersive cultural experience, offering insights into the UK's political, social, and cultural make-up, and opportunities to develop English language skills in addition to the academic knowledge and skills they gain from their studies.

Scholarships also present students with opportunities to interact extensively with people from different cultures and build global networks. These soft power benefits can be enhanced by broadening the scholarship experience, through events and immersive experiences. A number of scholarship schemes invest in character and leadership development programmes, which scholars say they value. Such programmes develop the relationship between the scholarship body and the scholar, and hone the scholar's potential to be a useful member of society, instilling a sense of giving and perpetuating a virtuous cycle for further generations of scholars. Yet scholarship providers could do more to make this 'sense of duty' more explicit to scholarship recipients and alumni through their programmes and activities during the schemes.

Another avenue to develop these immersive experiences is by linking scholars up with local communities through community service schemes. This allows them to be more involved in the host community, providing an opportunity to give back and build personal relations with locals. Simultaneously, community schemes allow host country nationals to build a better understanding of scholars' perspectives and their differing life experiences in their home country.

The power of diversity is harnessed in the scholarship experience, helping scholars build a network combining technical knowledge, global perspectives, and an understanding of different cultures and traditions. International scholarships thus help create a community of talented people from across the globe, and scheme providers could focus more on how this community can be leveraged to help scholars become the thought leaders and influencers who effect positive change. In addition, people would identify such leaders with their scholarships and link their success to the education they received in the host country.

Maintaining long-term soft power

Once the scholars move on or return home scholarship providers must overcome the sizeable challenge of staying connected, or reconnecting, with their alumni.

The large number of graduates within long-running scholarship programmes provides a huge alumni network, working in many different professions. Technological improvements have greatly improved the ability of alumni to connect, allowing many new dialogues stemming from the commonality of their scholarships. Scholarship scheme providers aim to benefit from such connections by engaging with alumni at various points in their lives, through events held locally or elsewhere. Contact with scholars certainly should not end or be drastically reduced after the scholarship – to strengthen ties and soft power benefits, the scholars must continually feel affiliated to the scholarship after the completion of their studies.

One approach that scholarship providers can take is to facilitate the building of sub-groups of alumni based on specific commonalities, such as geography, knowledge expertise, and profession. Some examples might include a Mathematics sub-group or an ASEAN students sub-group. The UK's Commonwealth Scholarships, for instance, arranges its alumni contact by active national alumni chapters and cross-national professional subject networks. These commonalities help alumni build relationships and collaborate more easily. Scholarship providers can also potentially work with higher education institutions, particularly those with more well-endowed alumni management resources, to get in touch with previous scholars that they have lost touch with. However, sharing database information can be problematic due to data protection laws.

Many alumni are very keen to take part in reunion activities or networking sessions with other alumni after their studies. Reengagement with such alumni could support the building of networks, increase donations, encourage the mentoring of future and current scholars, and provide other support to the host country or their representatives in Embassies and High Commissions around the world.

Inspired with a sense of giving back, alumni can be spurred to help millions across the globe. Alumni can achieve this much more easily with access to a strong global network. For example, alumni from developing countries who return to their home countries can tap into their global networks to help with social entrepreneurship causes at home. Thus the circle of soft power influence can spread very widely.

Outbound scholarships – an effective soft power tool?

Outbound scholarships are another avenue for increasing soft-power influence. The UK government is not currently investing in outbound scholarship programmes schemes; the Chevening, Marshall, and Commonwealth Scholarship programmes were all designed as 'inbound' schemes. However, one successful example shared is that of the New Colombo Plan of the Australian government, which supports Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the Indo-Pacific region, resulting in them gaining a better understanding of their region as a whole.

Outbound scholarships – particularly to countries that students would not necessarily go without a scholarship – can be a hugely valuable resource and help develop citizens who understand a foreign nation from a local perspective. These scholarships would also provide opportunities for students to become fluent in foreign languages, find out about more closed societies first hand, and develop networks that can give an extraordinary insight into the country – skills and knowledge that are of acute interest to western policy makers. Outbound scholarships could also strengthen soft power by sending out student ambassadors who can influence local understanding of the UK and help create a positive impression of British nationals.

Scholars can also be a bridge between academics from more closed societies and academics from open societies, facilitating a powerful exchange of ideas.

Particularly at the undergraduate level, commitment from governments and education institutions should be available to urge students who would not normally study abroad to take up such opportunities, for example through the Erasmus Programme. At the postgraduate level, governments could develop programmes that take the best practices of outbound scholarships, such as the Fulbright programme in the United States, the New Colombo Plan and the Carlo-Schmid programme under the DAAD in Germany.


In order to have long term soft-power influence and impact, international scholarship bodies need to constantly adapt their offer and improve their alumni management. Soft power is not merely developed and then retained, but rather has to be maintained by the process of engagement with alumni. Diligent and energetic alumni management – including career tracking and creating cohesive, active alumni groups – is thus critical to shaping the outcomes of sponsorship programmes. These groups can further enhance return on investment, benefiting from the willingness of most alumni to give something back to their host country long after their return home.