By Laura E. Rumbley

01 May 2014 - 09:28

Do the benefits of scholarship programmes for international study outweigh the risks? Photo (c) College Degrees 360, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Do the benefits of scholarship programmes for international study outweigh the risks? Photo ©

College Degrees 360, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Governments invest in their citizens through scholarship programmes for international study, but do the benefits of such investment outweigh the risks? Laura E. Rumbley, Associate Director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, looks at the issues in her summary of a report on the internationalisation of higher eduction, published today.

A growing interest in sponsoring international higher education

Around the world, there is growing interest among national governments to initiate or expand scholarship programmes that provide citizens with the opportunity to study outside their home country. On the face of it, these sorts of initiatives generate little controversy and, indeed, are usually well-received, both by those involved and disinterested international higher education observers alike. What’s not to appreciate about providing bright young minds with the chance to sharpen their academic skills at some of the best universities around the world, while developing their foreign language and intercultural skills, and priming them — through overseas experience — to lead a new generation of scholars, innovators, and leaders?

A closer look at scholarship schemes

Such ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings about national scholarship programmes for international study may be appropriate. However, we need to have both a deeper and clearer understanding of how these programmes actually operate and their real-world effects. The Boston College Center for International Higher Education, in collaboration with Global Opportunities Group, LLC, recently completed a study for the British Council and German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) aimed precisely at improving our understanding of nationally supported outward mobility.

This project involved taking a close look at scholarship schemes in 11 different countries: Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. The goal was to provide a clear sense of why these programmes have been established; how they are designed, administered and funded; who receives scholarship funding; where scholarship recipients study overseas; and, ultimately, what impact these scholarship schemes are having, particularly in relation to the goals stated by the national governments funding these activities.

What are the numbers?

Our analysis showed that, while the countries in our sample may collectively see nearly 1.2 million of their students studying outside their home countries in a given year, just 59,930 (or 5.6 percent) of this population of outwardly mobile students received national government support.

The proportion would have been much higher, had we limited the study to Brazil (where 27.9 percent of outwardly mobile students are government-funded) and Saudi Arabia (72.2 percent). Government funding in those countries makes a real difference to outward mobility. Scholarship recipients represent a big percentage of outwardly mobile students from those countries. In the other nine countries, the effect of scholarships on outward mobility is minimal to negligible. The vast majority of outgoing students from those countries do not rely on government support.

Why are governments investing in scholarship schemes?

While our analysis finds there is considerable variation across countries, the reasons why governments are investing in such initiatives show much more convergence. Typically, the stated rationales for these scholarship schemes turn on aspiration for national development, namely to advance the economy and improve a country’s capacity and potential for innovation. A central interest is to foster greater expertise in important fields — mostly (and unsurprisingly) in areas relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, where domestic training is either unavailable or thought to be of less than ‘world-class’ quality.

We also found that some national governments are interested in promoting international study in the hope that the experiences abroad will contribute to organisational reform and better performance back home — for example, ‘educating educators’ to improve teaching and learning, or developing hard skills and ethical sensitivities in the domain of public administration.

What are the benefits?

Among the countries in the study — and likely in many other contexts not examined in our study — national scholarship programmes can result in a range of benefits. Scholarship recipients themselves enjoy many advantages. Obtaining high-quality credentials, new qualifications and skills, and expanded professional networks and career prospects are among the top benefits for these individuals.

Institutions, both in the sending and receiving countries, are also gaining from the investments made by national governments in these mobility schemes. While abroad, scholarship recipients bring income and talent to host institutions. Returnees also offer their home country institutions improved knowledge and experience, as well as an expanded set of professional contacts that may be of service in developing new partnerships, collaborative projects and other opportunities.

At the national level, benefits are visible in workforce development. There is also a ‘multiplier’ effect, whereby returnees exert a broader influence on those around them by applying their knowledge and networks that they developed overseas.

What are the risks?

The most salient risks turn on the real possibility that scholarship recipients may fail to return from abroad, although none of the country case studies currently indicates that this is a regular problem. More complex and concerning is the risk that individuals, institutions, and the national funding bodies may simply fail to make the most of the experiences offered by these scholarship schemes. Here, we were struck by the extent to which the vast majority of our study countries did not begin a systematic process to measure the ‘success’ of their efforts. Little is done by scholarship administrators across our 11 study countries to evaluate the overseas performance of awardees (although the Saudis spend significant efforts to monitor their awardees and ensure they have a good experience).

Similarly, few countries carefully track rates of return upon graduation, or assess how students fared professionally and personally once home or (beyond some quantitative indicators and anecdotal insights) the contributions they make to the national project of economic — and sometimes social — development.

What have we learnt from this study?

Among other important findings, we believe that scholarship programmes cannot maximise their effects — and indeed, we cannot even fully understand their impact — without much more purposeful and systematic engagement with scholarship returnees and a commitment to making the most of what they have to offer following their scholarship experience. Equally, scholarship schemes must be designed based on specific objectives, and include concrete plans to measure their impact.

Although the data does not allow us to make an unqualified statement that investments in these types of programmes are a ‘sure thing’, our sense is that even small numbers of participants involved in such initiatives have the potential to yield significant results if guided by strategically sound rationales, and if quality underpins every step of the programme design, delivery, and assessment process.

Download the report following the related discussion at our Going Global 2014 higher education conference in Miami on 1 May 2014.

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