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The Rhodes gives students an all-expenses-paid ticket to Oxford University for two years of postgraduate study.Peter Macdiarmid/Reuters

Eleven Canadian students have been named to the 2014 class of 83 Rhodes Scholars from around the world, carrying on a prestigious tradition at a time when the revered Rhodes establishment is poised for change.

The Rhodes is still the world's pre-eminent graduate student award, offering an all-expenses-paid ticket to Oxford University for two years for postgraduate study, and carrying the distinction bestowed by 110 years of history and a decorated list of past scholars, including three Nobel Prize winners, former Canadian prime minister John Turner and former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

But there are new challenges to the Rhodes' supremacy as it faces pressure to expand its global reach in a tightening financial environment. As the scholarship's trustees strive to groom well-rounded, public-minded graduates, there is rising competition from lucrative, competing awards. And for the first time since the scholarships were founded in 1903, the Rhodes Trust has struggled to sustain its funding.

Cecil Rhodes first set up the scholarships for male "young Colonists" and U.S. students with a bequest of nearly $500-million in today's dollars, emphasizing that they should not be "merely bookworms." The criteria have adapted to modern times, but still seek well-rounded students who show potential to develop into leaders, and who "esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim." Aside from academic achievement, it continues to favour qualities like involvement in sports (not just "manly outdoor sports," as Rhodes decreed), or in music or theatre.

"The definition of what's good for society keeps changing, and the scholarships have to adapt to that," said Andrew Wilkinson, Canadian secretary for the Rhodes.

The Trust has been in transition. It has a new warden (the Trust's CEO), Charles Conn, an American and Canadian citizen with a background in Internet technology. And after being hit hard by the 2008 recession, with the cost of educating students rising, it began seeking donations for the first time in 2010. Donald Markwell, the warden at the time, warned the Trust was running annual deficits and raised the spectre of future "massive cuts" if the situation did not improve – even perhaps halving the number of scholarships handed out.

That hasn't happened, and fundraising appears to be stabilizing its finances – the Trust's endowment grew from $192-million in 2010 to $212-million by 2012. The Rhodes also received a $120-million pledge last fall from Canadian billionaire John McCall MacBain. But a third of his gift is targeted at the scholarship's perceived weakness – within the next decade, he wants to expand it beyond its historical concentration in the Commonwealth, the U.S. and Germany, to reach rising powerhouses like China, Brazil and Russia.

"The world has changed since Cecil Rhodes wrote his will," said Margaret MacMillan, a Rhodes trustee and warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford. "And he picked what he thought were the most important countries at the time, which they were. But China, for example – there were parts of the world which weren't included."

And the Rhodes is starting to see some competition: Earlier this year, U.S. businessman Stephen Schwarzman put up $100-million of his own money toward creating a $300-million scholarship fund to send students from around the world to China's Tsinghua University. And in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation poured $210-million into creating the Gates Cambridge Scholarships at Cambridge University, open to anyone outside Britain.

But Mr. Wilkinson believes it will be many years before students dream about winning these contending scholarships the way they aspire to the Rhodes.

"One of the great strengths of the scholarship is the sense of belonging to a group in Oxford who feel the obligation to work to make things better for everyone," he said. "And that's very difficult to build up quickly, and it's not something that arises from simply putting a lump of money on the table."

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