Cash needed for more Fulbright scholars

AMBITIOUS: Mele Wendt says Fulbright NZ would like to send up to 10 outstanding Kiwis if sponsors could be found.
AMBITIOUS: Mele Wendt says Fulbright NZ would like to send up to 10 outstanding Kiwis if sponsors could be found.

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today, an organisation which sends New Zealanders to top US universities is calling on the business sector to help them send more.

The Fulbright programme, the world's biggest academic exchange scheme, operates in 150 countries including New Zealand.

In addition to other grants, it helps one New Zealander undertake an MBA (Master of Business Administration) in the US each year. 

But Mele Wendt, executive director of Fulbright New Zealand, says it would like to send up to 10 outstanding Kiwis, if sponsors could be found.

Wendt said businesses see the scholarships as a way to improve the succession problem in New Zealand, where young business leaders are in short supply.

The fact that New Zealand was seeking a free trade agreement with the US was also not lost.

However, the battle to find $1 million in the current climate was "really hard slog".

"It's catch-22 because if they don't actually make these investments ... they won't have the particular kind of human resource that's needed to run successful businesses and create wealth."

The Fulbright-Platinum Triangle Business Award was set up seven years ago by the then-US ambassador to New Zealand, businessman Charles Swindells, who believed New Zealand needed more entrepreneurs.

However, the scholarship nearly fell apart three years ago when cutbacks at the Ministry of Education meant it could not renew its sponsorship.

It was saved by a small group of private donors, such the Todd family and Sky TV founder Craig Heatley, plus MBIE and NZ Trade and Enterprise.

The $100,000 scholarship did not completely cover costs but promised lasting benefits, Wendt said.

"Basically to do an MBA at MIT or Berkeley ... you're looking at tuition fees of US$50,000 ($61,000) a year, and then to live in Berkley or live in Boston you're looking at US$20,000. So it's a US$70,000 a year proposition to get an MBA from a top US school.

"However, it's worth every last cent, because the long-term value of doing an MBA at the best business schools in the world, are multiple."

Scholars not only received top knowledge but got a chance to network with some of the world's best and brightest. They also had a chance to access resources such as America's large angel investor network.

A 2001 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, which sought to quantify the New Zealand Government's investment in the scheme, found every dollar spent on a Fulbright scholar was worth eight.

And Wendt said its research showed the vast majority of Kiwi Fulbright scholars stayed in the country to pass on the benefit of their experience. 

Fewer than 10 per cent had left for another country after returning to New Zealand in recent years, and the US study visa meant they could not return there for two years after their course ended.

This meant they could not be poached by US interests immediately after graduation, said Wendt.

"We can guarantee that these students are ... going to come back and spent at least two years here."

Next year is the 65th year of the Fulbright programme in New Zealand, which last year offered 77 study exchanges, 51 of them to Kiwis.

Since it began, it has sent over 1500 Kiwis to study or research in the US and received more than 1300 Americans here.

Wendt said she hoped the anniversary would help raise Fulbright's profile in New Zealand. 

Meanwhile, she and the Fulbright "family" of scholars in New Zealand would go to the US ambassador's house today, as they did every year, for Thanksgiving dinner.

Famous Fulbright alumni include:

•    Sir Wallace (Bill) Rowling, David Cunlifffe and Shane Jones (politics)
•    Economist Sir Frank Holmes and Independent Liquor founder Michael Erceg, (business/economics)
•    Writers CK Stead and Witi Ihimaera, composer John Psathas and Formway Design's Mark Pennington (creative arts/design)
•    Nobel prize-winning chemist Alan MacDiarmid, author Michael King and Victoria University vice-chancellor Pat Walsh (academia)