The Sustainable Development Goals call for inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all. However, access to quality education has traditionally been a lottery of birth – all too dependent on an individual’s wealth or proximity to a good school or higher educational institution.
The educational divide that many people around the world face is being eroded partly due to investment in scholarships and distance learning, enabled by the adoption of new communications platforms including the internet and mobile technology. Commonwealth governments have given special recognition to the importance of both distance learning and scholarships over many decades, a commitment reiterated at the meetings of Commonwealth Education Ministers.
Commonwealth Education Ministers first established the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan in 1959. Today around 1,000 people a year benefit from its scholarships and career development opportunities, including postgraduate study and post-doctoral fellowships.
In 1987, the Commonwealth of Learning was founded to widen access to education in developing countries using distance learning and new communication technologies. Today it supports e-learning, technical and vocational skills, and delivers programmes for marginalised groups including women.
In 2003, Education Ministers approved the creation of the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, a collaborative network overseen by the Commonwealth of Learning to strengthen tertiary institutions in 31 small states.
The Commonwealth has played a leading role in providing educational opportunities including scholarships, and been a global leader in the field of distance learning. This has contributed to the growth of accessible, affordable quality education for communities and marginalised groups.
More than 30,000 people have benefited from the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, of which nearly 90 per cent have returned to work in their home country. Alumni have gone on to become cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries, and leading parliamentarians, central bankers, academics and authors.
The Commonwealth of Learning has delivered multiple award-winning programmes. Its Lifelong Learning for Farmers initiative, for example, has lifted thousands of agricultural workers out of poverty, while its Commonwealth Executive MBA programme has helped more than 27,000 graduates around the globe.
Since it was set up, more than 53,000 people from small states have benefited from the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, with more than 80 participating institutions. As a result, affordable further education is now in the hands of more people than ever, changing lives and livelihoods.