The rise and rise of Rhodes

John Kane-Berman says the scholarships continue to go from strength to strength

Rhodes on the rise around the world

Two of the annual crop of nine South Africans chosen to go to Oxford on Rhodes Scholarships later this year have recently been accused of hypocrisy by accepting the scholarships despite their involvement in the Rhodes Must Fall movement which erupted at the University of Cape Town in 2015 (UCT).

They will no doubt survive the accusations, although South African universities may not cope so easily with the damage done to their financial well-being as a result of decisions taken by their administrations and by Jacob Zuma's government in their efforts to appease the militant students involved in the movement.     

The Rhodes Scholarships, operating since 1903, meanwhile grow from strength to strength whatever anyone at UCT or anyone else in South Africa might think of the man who founded them. In its most recent annual report, the Rhodes Trust says that as of 30th June last year its "endowment assets" were worth almost £248 million, up by £60 million from the previous year. That is an increase of almost 33%. 

Part of the reason for this dramatic growth is that the trust recently secured a donation of £25 million from Atlantic Philanthropies, following an earlier injection of £50 million by a former Canadian Rhodes Scholar from Quebec, John McCall MacBain, who is described as the "second century founder".

Funds have also been donated by more than half of all living Rhodes Scholars in constituencies that include the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Germany, Singapore, Bermuda, Rhodesia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Jamaica, Malaysia, Ireland, Pakistan, Botswana, Hong Kong, and South Africa.  

At the current exchange rate of R16.86 to the British pound, the Rhodes Trust's endowment is now well above R4 billion.

This money finances an average of 220 scholars in residence every year in Oxford. Each of the nine South Africans starting their Oxford careers in October can expect to have £55 000 spent on them by the trust during the three years they are likely to be there. They will be among 95 new scholars taking up residence and being admitted as members of one or other of the university's 43 colleges.    

The days when the scholarships were mainly confined to South Africa, the US, and other former British colonies are long gone. The first four Chinese scholars arrived in Oxford in October last year. The nine South Africans arriving in October this year will be accompanied by students on first-time scholarships established for West Africa, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Palestine. The cost of endowing these new scholarships is £50 million, of which £40 million has already been raised from a range of different benefactors. The Trust is also planning to establish additional scholarships for Africa, India, and Pakistan.

Despite attempts in South Africa, with a bit of help from a few people in Oxford itself, to demonise their founder, the scholarships have clearly in no way been damaged. Not so some of South Africa's universities. Most obviously, they have been damaged by the destruction of almost R1 billion worth of university property. In addition, tertiary education has had its financial stability undermined, and probably also its quality, at least in some institutions. We have also witnessed the sorry spectacle of some university administrations capitulating to the demands of an essentially nihilistic minority of students able to use or threaten violence with impunity.

Although the Rhodes Must Fall movement garnered considerable support from some excitable people within academia and the media, as well as in other circles, it is hard to think of anything useful that was achieved. Moreover, although his statue at UCT might have been hustled away into hugger-mugger, the name of Rhodes will appear on the CVs of more and more people from more and more countries around the world.      

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom, and a former Rhodes Scholar. His memoirs, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, will be published by Jonathan Ball in March.