Like the rest of the international education sector in Australia, the Australian government development scholarships program, the Australia Awards, have been thrown into chaos by Covid-19. Does this moment of uncertainty offer an opportunity for the scholarships to reset?
The Australian government has been offering scholarships to international students in the region since 1948. The South East Asian Scholarship Scheme was a small program with the ambition of reshaping the view of Australia in South East Asia. What began with the South East Asian Scholarship Scheme is now the Australia Awards, a program managed by DFAT and open to countries across Africa, the Indian Ocean Rim, South East Asia and the Pacific. While the size of the current program is well down on the peak in the golden era between 2008 and 2013, it still forms a vital part of Australia’s diplomatic and development footprint. It also provides a supply of well qualified, driven and financially secure (after all the Australian government is footing the bill) students for Australian universities.
Like the rest of the international education sector, the Australia Awards have been turned upside down by border closures, university cutbacks and economic turmoil. The impact of the pandemic on some of Australia’s neighbouring countries that benefit from these scholarships has been huge. Indonesia, for example, has experienced severe infection rates and economic consequences. And while it has escaped the worst of the virus, the shrinking tourism sector has had a devastating impact in the Pacific.
So, the Australian government is faced with a conundrum. It cannot continue the Australia Awards with a 2021 intake unable to enter the country. But the need for programs such as the Australia Awards is likely to grow over coming years. From the outside, it appears that DFAT is hedging its bets, continuing with an application process for a 2022 intake, while members of the 2021 intake wait for their tickets to Australia.
My PhD research surveyed the full breadth of scholarships provided by the Australian government, from 1948 to 2018. Scholarships have been a remarkably resilient form of aid across that period, weathering changes in government, focus, economic circumstance and domestic policies. This points to the likelihood that the Australia Awards, or something like them, will be with us well after the pandemic is over. The other lesson that can be taken from this longevity, however, is that the Australian government has not taken many opportunities over the past 70 plus years to really look at the scholarship program. It has developed, iteration by iteration, with tweaks, name changes and recipient country changes.
DFAT now has a chance to think about what the Australia Awards program is, and what it should be. What will a PhD candidate say about the history of scholarships in another seventy years? Will the government seize the opportunity for radical reform (for example the overseas student subsidies introduced by the Whitlam government or the Equity and Merit Scholarship Scheme designed by the Hawke government), or will we just keep plodding along (for example the transition from Australian Development Scholarships to Australia Awards)?
What is possible?
Now is the time that DFAT should be thinking about what it is trying to achieve through the Australia Awards. Scholarship programs like this have accumulated a lot of baggage over the years – they are about development, about diplomacy, about soft power, about making connections, about linkages, about leadership, about governance and so much more. That is too much for one program to achieve, but the woolly nature of scholarship effectiveness measures makes it possible without too many red flags.
But as recent research by Anne Campbell and Emelye Neff has demonstrated, this is not necessarily a good thing. Research has also shown that longer term scholarships achieve more of the goals that the Australian government seeks through the program, but shorter term programs are currently favoured. While there is greater gender equity than previously, this remains a significant issue in some country programs. Women and alumni with a disability also face significant barriers when they return home. And the huge focus on Masters level programs excludes many candidates, often people who have the potential to make the biggest changes in their communities.
By thinking about the fundamental purpose behind the Australia Awards, DFAT has the opportunity to reshape these scholarships for what is a very different environment to the one that existed in 1948, or even 2008. Perhaps the current Australia Awards scheme is not the best way for the goals of the Australian government to be achieved? Moving funding away from higher education scholarships and towards developing higher education systems would require a willingness to relinquish some of the control the scholarships provide, but it may prove a more effective measure. Focusing on PhD scholarships may allow for longer term engagement and deeper connections, but it requires investment and a greater tolerance for risk. And thinking about how to achieve equity of access to these opportunities is difficult, complicated and requires long term investment, but it can have a significant impact on the lives of some of the most marginalised people in the region.
The situation that Covid has forced upon us all offers DFAT an opportunity to be brave when it comes to scholarships. There is precedent for this. The South East Asian Scholarship Program was a little program with big ambitions. Imagine what is possible now.