Interview on the Rhodes Trust and Global Higher Education with Sir Colin Lucas
Published on: Apr 20, 2007

Sir Colin Lucas was the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1997 to 2004. He is now the Warden of Rhodes House and Chief Executive of the Rhodes Trust.

Nicholas Rice: The fundamental aim of an organisation such as the Rhodes Trust is to give sufficiently able and talented students from around the world the right to a correspondingly world-class education – students who are not only set on furthering their own academic excellence, but also the leadership qualities and physical energy to enable their academic achievements to count in the broader community.  

The Rhodes Trust already has a great deal of institutional experience in achieving this in the case of international students coming to study at Oxford University, but in order to set up new scholarships or awards or to expand the Trust’s activities further funding is clearly crucial. What strategies do you have for the next five or ten years that will enable the Trust to grow in this manner? 

Colin Lucas: I would make one addition to the description you have just given of what the Rhodes Trust is about. I think that it is very much inhabited by the ideal that young people go on to make a difference through being concerned with and committed to the public good, which is why very few of our scholars actually become very rich people. We’re not just about giving people the chance to have good careers. 

NR: So are you looking to raise money from public institutions, or are you exploring a range of private institutions and so forth as well? I assume you wouldn’t accept any corporate sponsorship, for instance. 

CL: We have never raised any money in the past, so we are only just starting to do that now. In the first phase, we’re looking to raise money from our own scholars. I don’t think we’ll raise huge sums of money from them, but I don’t think you can ask other people to fund what you do if your own people aren’t committed to it. Then I think we will branch out.  

As for what we want to raise money for, I think there are two parts involved. One is simply to make sure that these people have the largest advantage they can get while they’re here. Of course, on the one hand that’s an issue of rising costs here we have to meet, but it’s also the fact that of course the circumstances and conditions of being in higher education have completely changed. Even 30 or 40 years ago a number of the Rhodes Scholars that we were recruiting then had probably never left their own country. Now it’s pretty rare to find someone like that. People travel, the Internet brings us all much closer together, you can get cheaper airfares, and so on.  

So it’s a different body of people we have now to the one we had then, and we need to be able to meet their horizons in a way we didn’t have to in the past. I want the money that we raise to enable them to travel far and to do different projects in distant parts of the world, to consolidate their desire to participate in public affairs for the public good. Nowadays, you just have to help people pay for that. It’s become more expensive, but there are more opportunities as well. When I was a student, you would have dreamed maybe of traveling to Cambodia, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything there, I would have gone to look. Now people want to do things. 

NR: Do you think this favors applicants from wealthier backgrounds, given that they have more resources to travel and build up international experience as well as a better education before they apply? 

CL: I don’t think it’s quite as straightforward as that. The United States has become immeasurably wealthy over the hundred years of the Trust, and the places to which we have extended over the last 30 to 40 years, particularly in Africa, have become poorer. There have been major changes in South Africa during our time there, as there are going on in India now. 

I don’t think that within the countries that we operate in, the actual composition of the people who have got scholarships has changed, even though the relative wealth of the country may have changed as a whole. For instance, I have got young scholars from black Africa who are seen by their family groups as the child who has succeeded, with a yearly stipend that is relatively modest, but looks fabulous to these people. I have discovered that they are sending money home to educate their sisters and brothers and pay the medical bills for their parents and so on. 

NR: Are you looking to capitalize on the positive attitudes this can bring to universities in general? Do you support the higher education that students receive before applying for a scholarship? 

CL: We are in South Africa, through the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. The Rhodes Trust has been around for a century, so we’re in our second century now, and we have a set of projects that we should build in our second-century plan, one of which is to try to contribute more to higher education in the countries in which we operate. 

NR: Enabling perhaps students from Oxford to go over there? 

CL: I think we have to take a step back here. The fact is that the conditions of international education have changed enormously. People move around. When the Rhodes Scholarships first came into existence, people did not travel that much. As an individual, you might go from your own country to do an undergraduate degree somewhere else, but there wasn’t that much movement of students, nor of academics.  

Now we’re in an international market where clever kids move to universities on scholarships all the time, and these flows have become quite complex now. Australia is a strong magnet; it has put a lot of money into recruiting Asian students in particular. The Americans, of course, have always attracted more and more students, but I think they are being challenged now by the rise of other educational systems, the European system for instance. 

NR: Is this partly because it is very expensive to fund a full scholarship through the Americans system, where tuition costs are so high? 

CL: The top third of American universities have got pretty large funding mechanisms to support overseas students that they want to get. To take a university at the very top end, Princeton buys its graduate students. They’re basically all there on funding, unless they’re at one of the professional schools. 

In the case of the Rhodes Trust, I think we would look to move our own scholars around; I don’t think we would look to fund other people to go from England to these countries. The Canadian scholars have funded students to come from Oxford to Canada, and the Australians have funded students who come from South Africa to Australia, so we already have the makings of a movement like that within the Trust. 

NR: Are you looking to increase the volume of students that are assisted by the Rhodes Trust? Have you examined any financial mechanisms for issuing a favorable loan to students to help them pay for their expenses, given that it is very expensive to grant a full scholarship that covers the cost of both living and tuition? 

CL: There are a series of issues here. The first is whether we want to increase the number of students who we give scholarships to markedly. Our present thinking is that we don’t. The reason is that if it becomes very much bigger we will lose the personal contact we have with our students, and we will lose the quality of the scheme, which is to bring them to the one university, mix them up together and with other students, look after them in a pastoral way, make sure they have all the opportunities and develop them from there.  

If we are going to have two hundred scholars a year, for example, I don’t think the university would be able to absorb them, and it would become a much more impersonal scholarship. With other scholarships, there is a sort of collective identity, but it’s not nearly as strong as our guys have. I could see us developing another scholarship scheme, connected with China or something similar, but I don’t think we want to develop a random scholarship, where anyone who wants to can apply, because we believe that this very careful selection system is very important to constituting the body of people we want. 

The second issue is that we act upon the principle that all scholars are treated the same, and we think that’s a very important principle for enabling the scholars to feel that they belong to the same body, and that there is a body of Rhodes Scholars that goes on through life. We’ve thought about talking to banks to have some kind of favorable terms for loans, and the trouble with that is that it’s quite difficult to make a bank give a loan to a scholar who comes by definition from overseas, and who is, by definition, most likely to leave the country. Even a great international bank will have trouble with that, and we decided not to go ahead because we weren’t able to guarantee it – it would make us too vulnerable. 

NR: Let us return to China, where you were an educational adviser for a period to Guangdong Province. Given that the Rhodes Trust currently offers only four scholarships to students outside of the Commonwealth – to Germany, in fact – bringing in students from China would certainly expand your international reach. How did you come to work with China, and what have been your aims in doing so? 

CL: Well, if you think about what Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the Trust, was setting out to do, he was aiming to ally the up-and-coming industrial powers that were going to shape the world, including Germany, in a project that would produce future leaders and carriers of civilization. It’s a vision that, a hundred years later, has now mutated, but if anybody’s looking at the future, they’re going to say that China and India are going to be the next ones. We’re already operating in India, so it might make sense for us to extend to China. 

I’m full of doubt as to whether you can apply the same principles, that is, a liberal and committed attitude to working for the public good, which seems to be a rather Western view set in later nineteenth-century values, although I think it has actually mutated very successfully over the last hundred years. Nevertheless, we’ve already operated with the same type of cultural premise, and I’m not exactly clear how well it would play out in China. But the value of education as a great liberator, as a great bringer of understanding as to the ways other people work, as a great enabler of the peace that comes from that kind of understanding – that, I believe, is beyond dispute. 

NR: Does the status of English as a lingua franca help you to extend the scheme to other parts of the world, since fewer and fewer people are unable to speak it? 

CL: That is certainly true, and it is extraordinary how many Chinese students speak very good English. But I wouldn’t want to spend too much time on China as a prospect for us.  

I think the change that we see at the moment is in the sort of study that people want to do. In the first 60 or 70 years of our existence, we were essentially bringing people here to do undergraduate degrees. It was a sort of mind formation. Nowadays, all of the universities that we deal with have perfectly good undergraduate programs, and the kind of people we’re recruiting now essentially want to do postgraduate study. The question for us is whether we are becoming just a funder of postgraduate studies, or whether we are able, through working with postgraduates, to pursue this particular ambition that we have to produce a particular type of person. 

NR: Is there not a demand for an undergraduate education in the UK from areas of the world in which facilities or teaching methods for undergraduate degrees more resemble certain secondary schools in, say, the United States? 

CL: There is potentially that need, although it’s true only of a minority of countries in which we operate. You also have to take into account the fact that people need to apply to you. You don’t go around collecting them. If somebody’s got an undergraduate degree from a university in Namibia, for example, where we take people from, they have a very strong desire to progress, a very linear view. Very few of them are going to say, “I want to do another undergraduate degree.” They’re going to want to get a PhD in metallurgy, or a PhD in computer science, because that’s the future. 

NR: So you’re not interested in taking people who have a specialized type of undergraduate education and giving them a broader one, such as the undergraduate course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, which quite a few Rhodes Scholars still take? 

CL: I’m happy to do it, and I think it’s a very good thing for people to do, but I can’t force it down people’s throats. 

What we’re seeing now is that the desire for a stretching liberal education that gives you a broad, humane understanding is a characteristic of richer societies, not of poorer ones. Globalization has made practically everybody believe that the future lies in specialization, and that if you want to make money for your family you get a skill.  

The people who want to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics among the Rhodes Scholars nowadays are almost exclusively North Americans. They feel so certain about the future that they have the time to do this – and then they’ll go off to law school and so forth. There is the possibility for someone who comes from an English-speaking society – for instance, America, or Britain, or Australia – of taking time out from this linear progression to educate themselves.  

To take people who come out of Zambia, for example, they know they’ve got to get on with it, and that what they’re looking for is a portable skill. If you’re talking about world patterns of higher education, the great majority of the world that is in the process of being globalized sees higher education as skill acquisition. 

NR: Is interdisciplinary analysis not a skill in itself? For instance, if you are running an organisation you need to understand and coordinate every aspect of its activities, not just a single discipline or area within the organisation. Does North America’s emphasis on a broader education not give it a wider socioeconomic advantage in this respect, which North American Rhodes Scholars can help bring to the UK? 

CL: I think that’s forcing it a bit. I don’t think that American superiority relies on or is born from that. America does have a different undergraduate system, where people build their undergraduate career through taking courses in all kinds of different things. Whether that’s identical to interdisciplinarity I’m not sure – it’s juxtaposition, which is not quite the same thing – but the very smart ones do learn from that, although many people are just acquiring credits. 

Interdisciplinary studies are certainly something you can cultivate very well at graduate level, and this university does indeed have a number of Master’s degrees that do that and which are pretty good – I encourage our scholars to take them – but I don’t think that large numbers of people who have already been through an undergraduate education will want to do that afterwards. 

NR: What do you believe the distinguishing hallmark of an Oxford postgraduate specialisation is, in that case? What kind of an education is the Rhodes Trust offering most of its scholars? 

CL: The Rhodes Trust is offering two things, one of which is not academic. What we’re offering is a structure in which people of different nationalities doing different types of degree specialization are thrown together in a more effective and deliberate way than happens anywhere in the world other than Cambridge. We have a venue, and various different activities, and the scholars are forced to engage with each other. Academically, the Rhodes Trust is very dependent on the quality of what Oxford offers, much of which is very good indeed. 

NR: How does Oxford manage to maintain its reputation as a global leader in this respect, although it does not have an endowment of the size of, say, Harvard? 

CL: Well, nobody has the money that Harvard has. Harvard is unique.  

It’s very important that people working in universities in the United Kingdom should understand the point of reference for America. There are four universities in the United States that have very large endowments – Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford – that distort the North American pattern for America considerably.  

Oxford’s endowment is comparable to the University of Pennsylvania, or Cornell University, or the University of Chicago, and I think that what Oxford does with its money should be compared with those sorts of places. I’ve worked at the University of Chicago, which I think is an absolutely marvelous university, and we are too. 

NR: Do you think Oxford needs to be funded at a higher rate than it is now in order for it to remain sustainable in its current form? 

CL: In a way that perhaps people didn’t think 20 or 30 years ago, universities are businesses. Oxford has a very particular product, it is value driven, but we have to work to sustain it. Half a century ago, people thought that Oxford did just sustain itself, that it was so self-evidently wonderful and knee-deep in history and in the product of history, and had wonderful libraries, but you can’t think that now. You have to run a university according to a strategy, you have to constantly update, constantly think of what other people are doing, remedying your weaknesses, trying to improve your strengths – BP would say that. 

NR: And do you believe that the same is true of all public institutions? 

CL: Of course it is. If they don’t know that, they’re in trouble.