Since their foundation in 1901, the Rhodes Scholarships – which brought to Oxford students from across the settler colonies of the British Empire, America and for a time also Germany – have been held up as the model for the many international scholarship programmes established in their wake. More recently politicians and educators alike have claimed them as an example of a system that created the human capital of a global knowledge economy.

However, though impressive in scale, the scheme established at the turn of the twentieth century by the Will of the South African mining magnate, Cecil Rhodes, was not a unique one. Over the course of the previous half-century, governments, universities and individuals had been establishing travelling scholarships to carry students from the settler colonies to Britain.

Perhaps the most prominent of these was the ‘1851 Exhibition’ scheme set up in 1889 by the Commissioners charged by Royal Charter to direct the considerable profits of the 1851 Great Exhibition towards ‘increasing the means of industrial education and extending the influence of science and art upon productive industry’ in Britain. But, as Nature reported in August 1890, when the scholarship committee considered the manner in which the grants were to be distributed, they determined that ‘colonial institutions’ should also be included within the British remit of the programme. Consequently, students from the universities of McGill and Toronto; Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and the University of New Zealand; the Queen’s Colleges in Ireland and the Royal College of Science in Belfast were placed alongside those from places such as Glasgow, Bristol and Birmingham. In 1889 the Commissioners of the1851 Exhibition clearly equated the idea of fostering British science with supporting science in the settler colonies.

But funding colonial students to study in Britain was something that settler communities had been doing long before either the Rhodes or the 1851 programme came into existence. Indeed, the foundation of universities in the settler colonies in the middle of the nineteenth century witnessed not a diminishment but rather a growth in the number of travelling scholarships designed to carry their graduates to Britain. Indeed, when in the 1890s Cecil Rhodes was thinking about the form his Will might take, there were already eight separate ‘travelling scholarships’ available for graduates from the Cape Colony. By 1914 the figure had risen to seventeen, with a further four available to students at the South African College. In 1940 the number stood at twenty-six. Similarly in Australia, before the institution of the Rhodes’ scheme, the University of Sydney had at least five such scholarships enabling its graduates to undertake further study abroad. By the end of the 1930s this had increased to twelve, with after 1909 an additional three free passages to Europe also offered to Sydney graduates by the Orient Line.

In establishing these scholarships, settler universities – many of which pre-dated the foundation of the English Civic institutions – saw themselves not as the apex of a proto-national educational structure, but rather as part of a wider system that included further education in Britain. For such institutions travelling scholarships were not seen as a sign of the inadequacy of the education they provided, but instead as evidence of its quality. In the age of steam, they helped connect far-flung institutions into an emerging global system of scholarship, serving as the sinews of an expansive British academic world. Students on travelling scholarships operated as ‘advocates’ of their former professors. They maintained and extended ties with British academics, kept their old departments up to date with academic gossip, sent back accounts of new research and copies of papers, and helped their old professors publish their articles in British scholarly journals. In doing so these students helped form an important conduit by which scholarship and academic life in settler universities was joined with that taking place in Britain.

By the end of the nineteenth century travelling scholarships had become an important part of settler universities’ educational visions. In carrying students from the colonies to Britain, they helped bring new knowledge deep into the heart of the ancient English universities, reshaping them as they did so, and serving as a key mechanism for the globalisation of knowledge. This, of course, was in the world before student visas.