DHG 2017: Research priorities for international scholarship programmes

The response to my ‘World Café’ session on our book, International Scholarships in Higher Education, at the eighth Donor Harmonisation Group annual seminar was gratifying and stimulating. Two large and energetic groups participated in the sessions and many colleagues from agencies in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Austria, to name a few, agreed to spread the word to colleagues who they felt would be very interested in our work.

The session had a dual purpose: to highlight that the book had been published, and to gather feedback on future research priorities to report back to colleagues in the academic and evaluation communities. From the two sessions, the major topics suggested were:

  • The economic impact of scholarships on the donor country economy – we did not delve into the detail in the World Café session, but this could be taken as either impacts during the scholarship, as a result of the programme investments, or long-term impacts on trade and business relationships (the latter was a recurring theme)
  • Impact on structures in society, rather than individual: how do you assess it? – Several chapters in our book address exactly this issue, because there is only a limited body of research that has drawn any convincing conclusions about organisational and institutional level impacts
  • Standalone scholarships or embedded in programmes: which is most effective and under what circumstances? – What are the benefits (and difficulties) of including academic scholarships, or other mobility arrangements, as actions within wider capacity building programmes?
  • What is the differential impact by modality of scholarship study, including lengths of study, local mobility (e.g. intra-regional) vs international mobility, and level of award (undergraduate, doctorate, etc.)
  • Effective strategies for successful outreach to target scholarships at the most relevant potential social change leaders, and not just those who have easier access to, and awareness of, application systems.
  • Similar to the last point, how to deal with the difficulties of documentation, including missing details from refugees (transcripts, schools certificates, etc), plagiarism in application forms, and forgery of documentation

A varied and interest list, with many familiar issues discussed at least over the last few years, in some cases much longer.

Unpicking research priorities

Documentation topics are largely administrative issues that require cooperation and knowledge sharing between implementing agencies, but not necessarily extensive research input. They are, however, pressing issues for the effectiveness of selection processes and thus have implications for impact more generally.

Other topics call for detailed comparative analysis if a meaningful answer is to be offered. The juxtaposition of standalone scholarships and embedded mobility was particularly prominent at the DHG conference this year. Several of the major European scholarship programmes have recently shifted away standalone scholarships to embedded mobility in wider capacity-building programmes. Nuffic, for instance, have administered the standalone Netherlands Fellowship Programme (NFP) for decades, but its 2017 replacement – the Orange Knowledge Programme – includes scholarships as part of a wider suite of actions, effectively combining the NFP scholarships with the NICHE capacity-building projects. Norway has taken a similar route in recent years, winding up the well known (and domestically popular) Quota Scheme scholarships in favour of mobility embedded within the wider NORHED programme.

Whether embedding scholarships will be a trend for more European donors in the future is not clear, but the fundamental research question – which approach works best, and in what circumstances? – cannot easily be answered by single-programme evaluations. That is also true of questions about the differential effectiveness of scholarship designs / modalities, the most widely discussed at DHG being about the type of mobility (intercontinental, regional, etc) and the length of study. Research on modalities is perhaps more straightforward than comparing programme impact for standalone and embedded mobility, but still relies on administrative or primary data that is largely not available within and between programmes. Clearly there is scope for collaboration in data collation, sharing, and cross-programme primary research.

Future research agenda

Attending conferences is always excellent for scoping out work underway. From this year’s DHG I was very pleased to hear about a study the University of Uppsala have nearly completed using long-term data on Swedish scholarship holders. The research was expected to be published at the end of 2017, with at least a summary – if not the entire report – in English. Two tracer studies of Swedish scholarship students are also currently underway. Likewise, the Danida Fellowship Centre is planning to launch a tracer study of Danish scholarship students, after a successful period of building administrative data on their alumni network. DAAD, who already invest heavily in monitoring and evaluation, including a variety of surveys instruments, have developed a new tracer survey with baseline, on-scholarship, and post-scholarship data collection points, similar in outlook to the CSC approach I helped design.

Beyond the new research from the agencies themselves, the research priorities discussed in my World Café session can offer some indication of the types of topics likely to be treated most seriously – and to have the most policy impact – among funders and administrators. We might not see a plethora of new projects launched based on this conference session, but existing or upcoming academic research could certainly improve its reach and relevance by considering whether any of these priority topics could be included. Feeding the topics back into the Scholarship Programme Research Network (SPRN) is the next step.