For the first time in the 116-year history of the Rhodes scholarship, students from anywhere in the world — even Britain — can now qualify for the award to study at Oxford University, the Rhodes Trust announced on Monday.
The news culminates a multiyear push by the trust to raise money from philanthropists, expand the number of scholarships and broaden the program — which until recently was limited to a fairly short list of countries — into something global. The result is far removed from the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, a South African diamond magnate and devoted British imperialist who saw the scholarships he endowed as very much an Anglo-Saxon and male privilege.
“If we believe in our mission to find incredibly talented people who will change the world for the better, they’re just as likely to be found in Indonesia as in Ohio,” said Charles R. Conn, the chief executive of the trust and warden of Rhodes House at Oxford. “We don’t feel constrained by who Rhodes was as a person, but perhaps each Rhodes scholar needs to reflect on that when they accept the money.”
When Rhodes died in 1902, he left instructions and money in his will for more than 50 students from a few current or former British possessions to study at Oxford, and five scholarships were soon allocated for German students. From the start, some scholarships were set aside for students from southern Africa, but for decades all of the recipients from those countries were white.
For generations, as the scholarships became among the most prestigious in the world, countries were added to the list gradually — British possessions, or former ones, in Africa and Asia, though some were later removed. Women were not eligible until the 1970s, students from some countries that were never part of the empire were first included in the 1990s, and British students have never qualified.
In the last few years, scholarships have been added for students from China, the Middle East, Africa and other regions. The largest contingent has always been from the United States, a group long fixed at 32 new scholarships awarded per year. The worldwide total has climbed from about 80 each year to 97 awarded in December, the largest cohort in history.
This year there will be 100, and “we’d really like to see, certainly, 125,” Mr. Conn said. For most of its existence, the trust relied solely on the initial gift from Rhodes, he said, but now that bequest pays for less than half the program’s annual costs.
Despite its modern record, the Rhodes trust is inescapably linked to Rhodes himself, an unabashed colonialist now widely seen as a leading European exploiter of African resources and people. The colony of Rhodesia was named after him, later becoming a nation ruled until 1979 by a minority white supremacist government, and ultimately renamed Zimbabwe.
Years of protest and debate over memorials to Rhodes coalesced into a “Rhodes Must Fall” movement and split decisions on two well-known statues of him. The University of Cape Town removed its likeness of him in 2015, but the next year, Oxford opted to keep its Rhodes statue at his alma mater, Oriel College.
The Rhodes scholarships finance up to four years of postgraduate study at Oxford. Students traditionally pursued a second bachelor’s degree, but in recent years most have enrolled in graduate degree programs.