Vol. 5 Num 435 Tue. August 16, 2005  

Among the scholars: An update

I am writing in response to the article entitled 'Among the scholars' by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed that appeared in your daily on August 7th. The author wrote on the Rhodes, arguably the most extravagant and international of all the scholarships that a graduate student can aspire for. Each year, about 70 young men and women of exceptional academic and extra-curricular backgrounds are chosen from around the world to come to Oxford for education and join this elite group of scholars. Countries such as USA, Canada, Australia, India enjoy a greater share in the number of scholarships awarded, partly for demographic reasons. Most of the other countries, such as Bangladesh, are represented in the Rhodes only on a 'one scholar per year' basis. It makes Rhodes the most exclusive of all the mainstream scholarship programmes (such as the Commonwealth, British Chevening, Full Bright) that Bangladeshi students can consider.

Bangladesh's history of Rhodes Scholarship is not long. The first scholar was elected in the year 1998 and since then, five others have joined the rank. In contrast to the US, the Bangladeshi scholars are too young to make their mark at the national/international level. Their absence in the mainstream has, in turn, created an image problem Bangladeshi students often lack an understanding of the worth of the Rhodes. Dr. Ahmed, himself a Rhodes scholar, has contributed significantly in this respect through his occasional write ups. His latest piece highlighting the profile of various American Rhodes Scholars is an informative one for current students. Nonetheless, Dr. Ahmed ends with a heart-breaking news this time: Bangladesh is no more on the Rhodes list. This is indeed very disappointing.

Since the scholarship was first introduced for Bangladesh only in 1998, its suspension comes as a further shock. Dr. Ahmed has attributed this unpleasant development to the local selection committee and the scholars elected so far. He conjectures: 'Apparently Bangladeshi scholars have not been performing well at Oxford. Surely, there are exceptionally talented students in Bangladesh worthy of the Rhodes. Clearly they are not being selected. Something must be done to correct it'. The author indeed has reasons to feel disturbed by the current development and hence this rather uncharacteristic note from his end. That said, such unsolicited opinion may do no good to the Bangladeshi Rhodes community which is still at its infancy. The purpose of this note is to provide an objective account of the present stalemate and discuss some related issues. While I cannot claim that past and current Bangladeshi scholars at Oxford will mature into the Clintons, the situation is surely not so grave as to merit a suspension. Of the six students who went to Oxford since 1998, three successfully completed their terms and obtained post-graduate/doctoral degrees. The remaining students are still pursuing their doctoral studies. It's therefore somewhat imprudent to hold the incumbent scholars solely responsible for the recent development.

Let us consider some facts. Bangladesh is not the only country to have lost its berth: another eight countries have been affected leading to a total of 11 suspensions. These are- Australia (2), Commonwealth Caribbean (1), Germany (2), India (1), Malaysia (1), Pakistan (1), Singapore (1) and Uganda (1). In addition, there is a case of abolition i.e. Hong Kong. Surely, performance of the scholars was not the sole yardstick that guided the decision to suspend scholarship here. Second, the suspension is temporary, not a one-off ban. The fact is, the Trust had to cut down the number of scholarships primarily due to a financial distress.

It is not my intention here to argue that Bangladesh has a completely clean slate. In some years, somewhat brighter candidates might have been chosen and the choice of scholars might have indirectly influenced the choice of countries that slipped into the suspension list. Selecting a Rhodes scholar in Bangladesh is a difficult task particularly when (a) there is just one scholar to be elected unanimously by a committee of 12, (b) students of all disciplines are eligible for an award and (c) the candidate must not be older than 24 years at the time of the application. In my opinion, the Rhodes selection committee in Bangladesh has done a commendable job amidst a culture of nepotism and mindless political interference.

But, like any other selection committee, they have been constrained by the problem of a 'thin pool' from which a selection can be made. Whilst it is undeniable that the potential pool of scholars is large in Bangladesh, partly for a lack of awareness and partly for a structural barrier, it has been difficult to enlarge the initial pool so far. The age limit is the primary structural constraint here. Thanks to the ever-lasting campus violence and lingering session jams, some outstanding Bangladeshi graduates from premier institutes such as Dhaka University, BUET and various medical colleges never make it to the initial pool! Yet, this has not stopped selection of some of the finest young men and women from Bangladesh who have shone during their time at Oxford. When the scholarship is reinstated for Bangladesh in five years time, I am confident that the local committee will continue to elect equally bright Bangladeshi students to pursue higher education at Oxford.

Niaz Asadullah is a former Rhodes Scholar.