Money for the old boys

Honi Soit investigates a raft of dubious scholarship programs on offer at Sydney Uni.

Who receives an expensive $60,000 scholarship? Tony Abbott’s daughter, at the Whitehouse Institute of Design.

When everyone heard of Frances Abbott receiving her dubiously allocated scholarship, Australians were outraged. It was unfair, and we recognised it as corruption. She didn’t deserve extra privileges because her dad was Prime Minister, nor should her dad receive benefits without declaring them.

However, it is also worth discussing the current state of the University of Sydney’s scholarship program because people seem to have forgotten that privilege, and cash, is often given for arbitrary reasons, in our own backyard.

There is very little data available on the actual distribution of university scholarships. USyd proudly advertises that it offers over 700 scholarship schemes, which collectively provide a whopping $65 million to lucky students, a figure that does not even include prizes or college and sporting scholarships. This begs the question – who do these scholarships actually go to?

Some scholarships offered by USyd stipulate bizarrely specific background eligibility requirements. St Paul’s college offers a special Wallace Anderson Scholarship, which covers a portion of your college fees if you went to the Kings School. The King’s School costs about $30-50,000 per year for students in high school. It seems odd that students who have been able to pay so much to attend a private high school need a special scholarship available only to themselves.

Equally odd are the few scholarships aimed specifically at men which undermine attempts to rectify gender inequality. The Martin McIlrath Scholarship worth $3,000 is available to male undergraduates within the Faculties of Veterinary Science and Agriculture and Environment with “preference” given to people who have served in the armed forces or their children. Apparently “women who are current or ex-members of the Australian armed forces are also eligible to apply.” Thank you for recognising women exist but making it clear they don’t get “preference”.

Similarly, there is a Freemason’s Scholarship, providing the children or grandchildren of Freemasons with up to $3,000. Freemasons do not accept female members, so even though their female descendants might be eligible, it further reinforces the ideas of male success. Further, Freemasonry is just as exclusive and outdated as Kings – so you’re still back at square one.

Worrying still is the fact that merit scholarships also perpetuate privilege. People who achieve an ATAR of 99.95 or 99.90 are eligible for $10,000 a year. Importantly, most people who succeed in the HSC tend to be from already advantaged backgrounds. Many students miss out because they attended a low performing school, meaning that they do not receive the financial assistance needed to access university.

ATAR scaling schemes like the Broadway Scheme at USyd do not compensate enough for many disadvantaged students and often offer limited financial benefits.  Whilst a clear purpose of most scholarships is to attract bright students to the university to increase its prestige, it is morally problematic that the financial reward is going to kids from the elite backgrounds rather than those in need.

Scholarships are important as they provide ancillary avenues for economically disadvantaged people to pursue higher education. In the case of Frances Abbott’s scholarship, there are clear elements of corruption and nepotism. However, a more subtle kind of social injustice is at work at USyd, where scholarships privilege the already privileged. With university fees likely to increase under Abbott’s proposed budget, scholarships will be the difference between going and not going to university for disadvantaged people. Unfortunately, these students were never quite likely to receive scholarships in the first place.