Courting the elite

Nina Dillon Britton asks why Universities
continue to line the pockets of the most privileged

When you get a 99.95, the courting by Universities is immediate and aggressive. There’s Sydney’s incessant emails about scholarships, highlighting the huge amount of money and how good this will look on your CV. There’s also the pre-UAC deadline high tea where the Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, gives a welcoming speech. It’s an opportunity to rub shoulders with a handful of faculty heads and your ‘elite’ peers as an acapella group serenades you. Holding your hand every step of the way are members of management who are more than willing to set up phone calls and meetings with any number of staff.

Though she’s since chosen to study at Cambridge, the spectacle evidently worked for school-leaver and ‘elite student’, Alice Hawkins. “The event gave me an appreciation for the true internationalism of Sydney as a player on the world stage, and its capacity to attract the best minds from around the world in a way that other institutions in other cities can’t,” she says.

Meanwhile, the average student stumbles into O-week and attempts to find their feet with nothing more than the hopeless University website to answer their questions.

The University of Sydney is not alone in it’s approach. It’s an unavoidable fact that all the Group of Eight Australian Universities are competing for a particular brand of student. Five years ago, perhaps, the University of Sydney’s courting methods did not need to exist to the same degree. Whilst the sandstone prestige of Australia’s oldest University may have once been sufficient, it is no longer. UNSW, for example, now not only outranks the University of Sydney in QS University Rankings for competitive subject areas like engineering, but has also overtaken Sydney as the primary preference of NSW school-leavers.

There’s actually very little Australian data on what sort of students receive these lucrative scholarships. What is clear, though, is that there’s a relationship between ATARs and the privilege of a student’s background.

“What we know is that students who come in via private school have their results inflated, because of that sort of intellectual cosseting that they’ve had,” says Professor Jane Kenway of Monash University. She goes so far to agree that it is “not impossible, but highly improbable” that a disadvantaged student could receive required perfect ATAR for these scholarships.

It seems bizarre then, that $10,000 per year is given in the form of the Sydney Scholar Chancellor’s Scholarship to any student who achieves an ATAR of 99.95. Knowing the profile of these ‘elite’ students, we can guess they largely attended private schools or highly ranked selective schools like James Ruse High School, which has a higher proportion of students coming from families in the top income quartile than Knox Grammar School.

The university does, of course, offer equity scholarships. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Tyrone Carlin was keen to point out that the University’s approach to its scholarships programs seeks to “achieve a number of ends”. In managing the need to attract ‘elite’ students and support disadvantaged students, Carlin argues, the University “does a reasonable job to balance these aims”.

Despite the extensive discussion around the reliability of the ATAR as a complete measure of a student’s potential at University, there’s been no questioning of the expensive courting of students with the highest score. If we are genuine in our commitment to an accessible and diverse student body, then the way in which elite students are valued and bartered for also needs a radical rethink.