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17 March 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:32pm

Nigel Sheinwald: “It’s in our DNA to be an international, outward-looking country”

The former British Ambassador to the United States and current chair of the US-UK Fulbright Commission on sharing talent and resources.  

By Rohan Banerjee

So “complicated and multi-layered” is the United Kingdom’s relationship with the United States, according to Sir Nigel Sheinwald, that there should be a tacit acceptance of its importance, “independent of the political temperature of the time”. While the press, he says, perhaps affords more prominence to the “high-profile political aspects of it… such as the chemistry or lack of chemistry between the President and the Prime Minister”, Sheinwald insists that it will always be in the interests of both countries to maintain the links for trading and talent exchange that have been built up over time. “This isn’t a light-switch situation, you know. There’s a lot going on and that’s been developed over decades, centuries even, and that comes from an embedded, integrated, cultural appreciation between the two countries.”

Sheinwald, who in a diplomatic career spanning four decades previously held the positions of British Ambassador both to the US and to the EU, believes that it’s “in our DNA to be an international, outward-looking country”. While his views on the UK’s decision to leave the EU are well documented – he is an unabashed Remainer – Sheinwald doesn’t want to dwell on “what we’ll lose”, but rather, shifts focus onto how a pre-existing relationship outside of the bloc might be improved to “bridge any gaps” left by Brexit. “I think that talent will have to come from around the world… but in this regard the US is absolutely central to the areas of business, education and research. The US already makes a huge contribution to our economy and to our investment profile.”

Sheinwald, who also served as a foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair’s Labour government, is now the chair of the US-UK Fulbright Commission and a visiting professor in foreign policy and security at King’s College London. He says that higher education has the potential to “complement” any future vision for US-UK trade.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission, established in 1948, is a non-profit organisation based in London to support educational exchange programmes between the two countries. Part-funded by both the US and UK governments, as well as by individual and institutional investors, Fulbright has helped around 27,000 students, primarily postgraduates, to study abroad.

In order to be eligible to receive a Fulbright scholarship, candidates must be US or UK citizens and be able to prove they are “academically capable” (a judgment usually made off the back of a first degree or academic record to date), and submit a written explanation of what they hope to gain from studying for a degree either in the US or the UK. Applications to US or UK universities are a separate process. Successful recipients of Fulbright scholarships get financial support towards their tuition fees and their living costs.

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Despite the enthusiasm for what he terms “isolationist” politics in some quarters, Sheinwald is confident that “increasing numbers of young people want the opportunity” to go to university in another country. But Fulbright has been criticised by some people for being too exclusive an organisation, not well known within more working-class communities or even at universities outside of the 24 in the Russell Group.

When former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced an additional £400,000 of funding for Fulbright in the 2018/19 academic year, he stipulated that it should be used to enable students from deprived socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minority groups to “benefit from what has historically been perceived as a very elite programme”. Last year, 42 per cent of Fulbright scholars were privately educated.

Sheinwald admits that Fulbright “could do better” when it comes to showing the diversity of its programme, but doesn’t think affirmative action is the answer. “I don’t agree quotas would solve everything. I think there is a problem with the perception of what Fulbright actually is. We get lumped in with [the] Rhodes [Scholarship], which is something specifically for students to study at Oxford. The idea that Fulbright is just for Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge… that’s a caricature, to be honest. We have a wide range of universities involved.” Nevertheless, Sheinwald accepts the “challenge” to improve social mobility. “We could do better and that’s why we’ll be targeting more awareness programmes across British schools and universities.”

Whilst Fulbright has traditionally dealt with postgraduate programmes, in order to “broaden its horizons”, Sheinwald says it is now also involved in more undergraduate opportunities. Fulbright has recently partnered with The Sutton Trust, a UK educational charity dedicated to boosting social mobility, to design The Sutton Trust US Programme. It aims to support high-achieving Year 12 students from state schools with two funded residential placements within the UK, before also funding a week in the US on campus at a leading American university. An optional second year of the programme supports students to apply to US universities alongside their UCAS options. “Last Autumn,” Sheinwald says, “Fulbright and The Sutton Trust sent over 70 undergraduate students to a very wide range of universities with generous financial aid packages.”

The UK, Sheinwald says, benefits from having a “disproportionate number of the world’s best universities”. Indeed, according to the QS World University Rankings for 2019, the UK accounts for five of the top 20 entries. The US, meanwhile, accounts for 11. Sheinwald adds: “I think the reason why the US-UK educational relationship is so important is because frankly it is something that has been gifted historically to the UK. If the UK wants to maintain its place at the top table of academia globally, then it needs to enhance its partnerships with the other top universities, especially in the US, and especially if funding frameworks with European universities are going to be revised. The best way we can help our education system to remain at the top table is to strengthen these links at all levels. I would see the success of programmes such as Fulbright as central to the UK’s chance of success in an increasingly globalised world.”

As for the future, then, does Sheinwald think that the importance of academic exchange is particularly high on Donald Trump’s agenda? “I don’t know if Fulbright is on the President’s radar, to be honest,” he says with a sigh, “but I do know that the US administration continues to fund the Fulbright programme and it has a very strong support in Congress. There are always going to be questions around whether countries like the US do enough to fund cultural or educational causes alongside other aspects of foreign policy, but so far, I’m pleased to say, our funding from the US side has remained intact, and even increased last year.” Could Brexit end up being a success? Sheinwald doesn’t care to speculate beyond what he’s already said, but insists, with “sustained” government support, “Fulbright certainly can be.”

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