“The Oxford system”, noted Cecil Rhodes, “in its most finished form looks very unpractical, yet, wherever you turn your eye … an Oxford man is at the top of the tree”.[1]

Like any shrewd businessman, Mr. Rhodes turned this insight into something tangible. Explicitly outlined in his will is the template for what is currently the most distinguished international scholarship: the Rhodes Scholarship. In brief, it is an initiative that ensures the world’s most talented, driven graduates have the opportunity to study at Oxford and climb this tree.

Image courtest of the World Economic Forum, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Since its establishment in 1902, the scholarship has evolved and adapted to reflect broader changes throughout the world ­– allowing women access to the award, for example. The basic principles underwriting it, however, have remained stable.

These principles, namely the promotion of international peace and understanding, have undoubtedly been reflected in the quality of scholars produced. Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, for instance, relished his opportunity at Oxford and undoubtedly used it as a springboard for later political success.

Yet despite the Rhodes’ deserved status as the supreme international graduate scholarship, this designation is likely to be challenged in the near future. This is not to suggest that it will suddenly become irrelevant; it will continue to produce some of the finest leaders we know. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the traditional Rhodes program is becoming increasingly removed from international trends.

Springing to life at the zenith of Empire, the Rhodes Scholarship was a means of improving Britain’s most strategic relationships, that is, relations with their colonies, the United States, and of most concern, Germany. The modest rationale was that a better understanding between the powers might prevent war.

Yes, the rationale remains the same. Wars will continue to be fought; international peace, whatever that is, will remain a buzzword. Crucially though, the terms and conditions have changed. The British Empire is a subject best studied by historians, and European conflict has transformed into a series of rather farcical disagreements among EU members

The question must therefore be: How can a scholarship originally designed to buttress Britain’s imperial interests remain the most acclaimed, sought after award of its kind in the twenty-first century?

For the next generation of leaders it is Asia, not Europe, which will be the focus of attention. This is largely due to a profound economic shift eastwards: a trend that is arguably the defining feature of our age. By any measure or data set, Asia is set to outperform the West over the next decade. The recent IMF growth projections are one such example.

The concern is not so much a matter of whether or not Asia will rise, but how it’s rise will be dealt with by the West. With vastly different cultures, histories, and political structures between the East and the West, there is much to be done in this department. Asia’s prosperity in this sense is not without cost for Western governments, for if the West gets it wrong, there are likely to be severe geopolitical repercussions. Not appreciating the importance of this changing relationship is therefore tantamount to playing Russian roulette.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that a professional hedger of risk, Stephen A. Schwarzman, is at the forefront of Western attempts to understand the East. The CEO and co-founder of Blackstone has personally donated $100 million of his own wealth, in addition to pledging a further $200 million from outside sources, towards pioneering a new scholarship scheme to be launched in 2016: Schwarzman Scholars.

Designed to embrace the “defining challenge” of our time vis-à-vis East-West relations, Schwarzman’s scholarship program is not only visionary, but also well thought out and robust.[2] Consulting educational leaders from Harvard, Yale, Duke, Oxford and Cambridge, Schwarzman Scholars’ eminent advisory board have tailored their scholarship scheme to entice the next generation of global leaders. With 45% of the awards designated to US citizens, 35% to internationals, and the remaining 20% reserved for Chinese nationals, the Scholarship is set to have a truly global impact.

Scholars will undertake a specially designed one-year Master’s degree at Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading institutions of higher learning.  The strategically pertinent fields of public policy, economics and business, international relations, and engineering have been earmarked as the four fields of study open to Scholars, with scope and intentions to expand once the program begins in earnest. Based in Beijing, academic oversight will be provided by leading scholars from Tsinghua and distinguished visiting fellows.

Before commencing their studies, Scholars’ will immerse themselves in a summer orientation program. This is set to consist of travel throughout China in addition to language tuition and cultural workshops. Each Scholar will also be assigned a mentor with whom they consult throughout the program. These mentors will be leading figures in their desired field, so the opportunities afforded by the extra-curricular dimension of the scholarship will be genuinely trailblazing.

Schwarzman College, the 2,580,000 square-foot campus that will house the 200 Scholars annually, is symbolic of what the program is attempting to achieve. In order to attract the best students globally, the Schwarzman Scholar’s committee have designed a central campus to rival any in the world. Robert A.M Stern, Dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, has conjured up a building harmonising the best practices of both East and West. These include a traditional covered Chinese terrace and pergola, residences based on Harvard Business School’s Executive education suites, a central, sunken courtyard in characteristic Chinese design, and a residential college based on the likes of Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale. The Schwarzman Scholar objective of gaining a “more nuanced understanding of China’s social, political and economic context” is in this way inbuilt into the very design of the college.[3]

With an academic advisory board that consists of Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice, it is difficult not to get swept away in the hype surrounding Schwarzman Scholars. Yet with seemingly everything pointing to a rise in China’s political and economic stocks, a thorough educational program to challenge the best students, and world-class facilities and backing at their disposal, Schwarzman Scholars looks set to pose a vary serious challenge to the Rhodes Scholarship’s claim as the world’s leading graduate scholarship.

It may appear ambitious. It may appear elitist. It may even appear impractical. In fifty years time, however, when there is a network of 10,000 Schwarzman Scholars it may also appear that many of them are at the top of the tree.



[1] Robert I., Rotberg, The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power (Oxford, 1990).

[2] Schwarzman Scholars. Retrieved 9 October, 2013, from http://schwarzmanscholars.org/

[3] Stephen, Schwarzman, American Financier Stephen A. Schwarzman Endows International Scholarship Program in China. Retrieved 10 October, 2013, from http://schwarzmanscholars.org/

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