Do scholarships entrench privilege?

How the university wooes high achievers

university quad on a sunny day with jacaranda tree in bloom

As other universities are moving away from the ATAR as a way of measuring incoming students’ performance, the University of Sydney is rolling out the Dalyell Scholars Program — a new initiative for students with top ATARs. It boasts nebulous promises of “mentoring” and an opportunity to “network with like-minded world influencers”, as well as a very real $5000 payment to Dalyell Scholars who go on exchange. Speculation remains as to whether the scholarship copy was written by the same people who write Silicon Valley.

Named after alumna Elsie Dalyell ( “dee ell”) – the first female full-time academic in Sydney’s medical faculty — the Dalyell Scholars Program is open to Year 12 students who achieve an ATAR of 98 and above. Admissions are based purely on academic merit. Students who also achieve an 80+ WAM in their first year, despite missing the ATAR cut-offs, are also eligible to apply. Concessions are available for Indigenous students, low SES students and those that have experienced educational disadvantage.

According to a spokesperson, “the University aims to assist each student to reach their potential to the greatest extent”. It advertises that the program is designed to “challenge [these high achieving students] to greater depth and breadth of learning”. As admirable as those goals are, the purely academic basis of admission begs the question of whether accelerating the academic and industrial trajectories of the top 2% of the state is an equitable aim. Should the University be striving to reward those who are already maximising their potential, without assistance?

This is not the first University program to offer exclusive opportunities to high-achieving students. Other existing programs, such as the Talented Students Program (TSP) already offer exclusive research projects under the supervision of academics for science students. Engineering has various leadership scholarships sponsored by industry giants that give their students workplace placements and mentors.

The TSP requires students to achieve a 99+ ATAR for first-year entry, whilst one of the engineering leadership scholarships has a 98+ ATAR entry requirement. Successful  applicants are then nurtured throughout their degree by academic and industry mentors, which undoubtedly benefits the trajectory of their future pursuits and careers. Those are precisely the kind of networks that low-SES students are likely to lack, and which money from other scholarships can do the least to compensate for.

The underlying issue here is not whether or not high-achieving students are deserving of these opportunities. Instead, at issue is who should be prioritised. Having accessible mentors and an established alumni network provides a plethora of opportunity. Owners of an elusive key into these doors are often high-achievers, or reap the benefits of their circumstances – especially when blessed with socio-educational advantage. When opened, these doors present a variety of career, academic or developmental opportunities that incubate exclusivity. If the same key were handed to students of disadvantaged backgrounds, not only could their potential be nurtured, but also break the cycle of disadvantage that is perpetuated by the lack of opportunity.