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The problem with Commonwealth ‘scholarships’

Written by Adjunct Professor Gavin Moodie for The Conversation

Equity scholarships usually attract general support as a “good thing”. It therefore seems surprising that the Coalition’s proposed new Commonwealth scholarship scheme should generate so much contention if not opposition.

Once government scholarships, now government loans

The first problem with the new scholarships is that they are meant to compensate for the Coalition’s proposed cut of $800 million from existing scholarships over five years. The government proposes to restrict eligibility for the current relocation scholarships, which are from A$1,036 to A$4,145 a year, and to convert to a loan the current start-up scholarship of A$2,050. These scholarships are needed because the Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy are tied to unemployment benefits, which are far too low to support their recipients in either study or job seeking.

The director of equity at Queensland University of Technology, Mary Kelly, notes that converting equity scholarships into loans would result in the poorest students leaving university with more debt than their high-income counterparts in the same programs. Kelly describes this as

“one of the worst public policy ideas ever, and deserves to be strongly rejected by the Parliament.”

How do you calculate the scholarship funds?

A second problem is the way the funds for the scholarships would be calculated. The Coalition proposes to require institutions with more than 500 students to allocate to the new scholarships 20% of any additional revenue they generate from charging higher fees. As Innovative Research Universities observes, the calculation is complicated and it can’t be made from published information.

The University of Western Australia’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), Alec Cameron, states that the highest proportion of his university’s enrolments are in science and engineering. Their fees would need to increase to more than A$14,200 just to make up for the proposed government funding cuts. Since the university is proposing a flat fee of A$16,000 a year for all undergraduate students, only A$360 per science and engineering student would need to be allocated to scholarships.

However, since the current fee cap for humanities is much lower and the Coalition plans to increase its subsidy of humanities subjects, UWA’s flat fee of A$16,000 would result in over A$2,000 per humanities student being allocated to scholarships.

These and similar calculations lead students to ask why they should pay higher fees to support other students whose scholarships the government has cut. Such redistribution has been routine in university scholarship programs for centuries and in government programs generally, but rarely is it so explicit.

Also, as Conor King commented in The Conversation, the scholarships would redistribute funds according to students’ (past) background rather than their future income, which is the basis of HELP loans.

A third problem is the name: New Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. It seems trivial, but by calling them ‘New Commonwealth Scholarships’ the Coalition is emphasising that these would compensate for its cuts to government scholarships and suggests that these are national rather than institutional scholarships.

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Posted 15 October 2014 Posted in Editorial, General