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What are scholarships for?

Written by Gavin Moodie for The Conversation

The University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, presumably achieved his political aim by announcing that his university could offer scholarships to almost a third of its students if fees were deregulated. Education Minister Christopher Pyne enthusiastically used Spence’s announcement to laud the benefits of fee deregulation in parliamentary question time.

However, Fairfax’s BusinessDay contributing editor Michael Pascoe observed:

“Odd game whereby uni pretends much higher fees are needed to offer more scholarships needed because of higher fees.”

The National Tertiary Education Union found that :

“… the simple arithmetic of the new Commonwealth Scholarship scheme does not add up.”

On the figures the University of Sydney proposes, the third of students who would get a scholarship would “be on average $3,400 worse off than they are now”, in part because universities have to increase their fees by 30% just to compensate for the government’s proposed cut to university funding.

But presumably scholarships are meant to do more than provide political cover for the government’s proposal to cut the current government scholarships and to introduce a policy that the government and most vice-chancellors want to introduce for other reasons. So what are the purposes of scholarships?

To increase diversity?

Spence said :

“I would like this university to reflect the demographics of society as a whole.”

That ambitious aspiration would require the University of Sydney to more than triple its proportion of students from a low socioeconomic status background from 7.5% to 25%, an increase from 2,036 to 6,750 students.

Spence said:

“We are not just concerned about the disincentive effect of higher fees on students coming to university, but also the potential debt issue for people going into public good but low-paid careers [such as nursing, teaching and social work].”

But there is no evidence that higher fees have reduced enrolments in the past nor that students don’t enrol because they do not want to incur HELP loans.

The difficulty is that in Australia, the UK and the US educational inequity starts much younger, at least by primary school, where different levels of attainment shape aspirations and subsequent educational opportunities.

Particularly for highly selective universities such as the University of Sydney, it seems likely that programs to increase equity will need to start much earlier in children’s lives than the high school students to whom scholarships are usually targeted.

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Posted 31 October 2014 Posted in Editorial, General, Low SES