Professor Don Markwell is Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre and was formerly Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford, responsible for running the Rhodes Scholarships around the world.

A flurry of well-orchestrated publicity yesterday heralded the exciting announcement in Beijing that American private equity billionaire Steve Schwarzman is leading the creation of a US$300 million scholarship fund to take students from the US and many other countries to undertake Masters degrees at Tsinghua University, Beijing (pictured).

The Schwarzman Scholarships represent the most significant educational philanthropy ever from the West towards China, and arguably one of the most striking acts of educational philanthropy in history.

The Schwarzman Scholarships are inspired by the Rhodes Scholarships, which since 1903 have taken exceptional students from many countries to the University of Oxford, and are clearly intended to be the Rhodes Scholarships of Asia. Their core purposes are the same: to promote international understanding and to help develop what Schwarzman calls 'future leaders' and the Rhodes Trust calls 'leaders for the world's future'.

Two hundred Schwarzman Scholars each year will be chosen from the US, China, and the 'rest of the world' on criteria similar to those for the Rhodes, expressed by Schwarzman as 'academic credentials, extracurricular interests and leadership potential'. They will go to Tsinghua University for a year to undertake one of four newly-designed Masters degrees, taught in English, and (it seems) will live in the Schwarzman College which is being created there. 

There are queries and quibbles.

Why were African students excluded from the 'rest of the world' eligibility for the scholarships? (It is said that this can be reviewed; it should be.) Wouldn't the impact of the Scholarship be greater if Schwarzman Scholars spent two or more years at Tsinghua, as Rhodes Scholars do in Oxford? Is it best for the Scholars all to be concentrated in a small number of courses and in one college? (Rhodes Scholars are dispersed across many courses and many colleges in Oxford.) Where will the remaining $100 million to make up the planned $300 million fund be sought? ($100 million has come from Steve Schwarzman, and $100 million from other donors, especially Western companies operating in China.) 

Has the advisory group been chosen for prestige or for real input? It includes, for example, three former US Secretaries of State (Kissinger, Powell, and Rice), three former prime ministers (Blair of Britain, Mulroney of Canada, and Rudd of Australia) and several other of the global 'great and good'. It has many Western and few Chinese members.

The questions asked here do not detract from the likely profound significance of this initiative. If the Schwarzman Scholarships come anywhere near to fulfilling their goals, they will make an important contribution to answering in a positive way one of the most important questions of the 21st century: how will the rise of China and the use of growing Chinese power, and the response of the US and other states, affect the prospects for stability and peace in the international system?

The creation of the Schwarzman Scholarships at Tsinghua University reflects and will promote the rise of Chinese universities which aspire to being truly world class. They may also help to encourage efforts at liberal and collegiate education which have emerged in recent years in various Chinese and other Asian universities, including through the influence of Yale University, whose retiring President, Richard Levin, serves on the Schwarzman advisory group.

It is very much to be hoped that the creation of the Schwarzman Scholarships will encourage the continuing development of a culture of educational philanthropy around the world, drawing on the US model of philanthropic generosity (and reflected recently in Australia in the outstanding $50 million gift to create the Tuckwell Scholarships at the Australian National University).

The unprecedented announcement, after his death in 1902, of Cecil Rhodes' vision of international scholarships and his massive bequest for them electrified much of the English-speaking and wider world. It is no surprise that the Schwarzman Scholarships are receiving major attention around the world today. They represent a breathtaking initiative that seems brilliantly fitted to the needs and opportunities of the 21st century. One can only hope the Schwarzman Scholarships will have as profound an impact for good as the Rhodes Scholarships have had and continue to have.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.