Scholarship scheme could increase the regional brain drain

Regional universities are worried regional students will be drawn to urban universities if scholarships aren’t centrally pooled. Flickr/Sumanjay, CC BY-SA

In the 2014-15 budget, the government announced a new Commonwealth Scholarship scheme. This will require higher education institutions to commit $1 in every $5 of additional revenue to the scheme “to support student access, participation and success”. At a recent workshop in Canberra, approximately 100 representatives from the sector met key government personnel to discuss how this might work.

Among the issues raised was a palpable concern among some non-metropolitan institutions that the scholarships will spark a regional brain drain of the best and brightest away from the bush to the big city. The fear is that urban (particularly Group of Eight) universities are likely to increase fees more substantially than regional universities due to demand, meaning if universities administer scholarships, regionals won’t have as many to dole out.

Regional universities are in greater need

A vice-chancellor at one regional university has referred to the scholarships as “a fundamentally regressive proposal”, which will encourage elite urban universities to target regional students.

Current higher education equity policy identifies six equity groups. They are:

  • Indigenous students

  • Women studying in non-traditional areas

  • Students with disabilities

  • Students from rural and isolated areas

  • Students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds; and

  • Students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Regional universities have higher enrolments of disadvantaged students. Flickr/Wilson Loo Kok Wee, CC BY

These groups will be the focus of the scholarships and regional universities tend to have above-average enrolments in most of them. The most recent Department of Education statistics on higher education equity groups show that, with the exception of students from a non-English-speaking background, universities comprising the Regional Universities Network have higher-than-average enrolments of the above groups of students.

In the Regional Universities Network institutions, 27.6% of domestic undergraduate enrolments are classified as students coming from the lowest socio-economic quartile. The national average is 15.5%. Cost-of-living pressures are a real issue for many regional students and the right type of scholarships will certainly encourage more of them to move to major cities.

Regional students are already at a disadvantage

Department of Education data show that regional students are often attracted to the cities to undertake studies not offered locally, such as medicine. Furthermore, high-achieving regional students have tended to prefer metropolitan universities. For these and other reasons, there has always been a flow of students out of the regions and into the urban areas.

However, it is unclear whether metropolitan universities would specifically target regional students through scholarships. Instead, they may choose to offer more generic scholarships, open to all equity groups, with applicants ranked by academic merit.

Given the strong evidence of a link between socio-economic status and academic performance (when measured by ATAR), we might find regionally based low-socioeconomic students struggling to compete for these scholarships. This doesn’t mean regional students have less academic potential than their city cousins. It does, however, highlight our educational system’s structural flaws, which disadvantage some groups of students and a lot of them grow up outside our major urban areas.

How can regional universities get ahead?

If the scholarships proceed as planned, regional universities still have some potential advantages.

First, the government is proposing that each university will administer its own scholarships. This is attractive to many universities as it provides them with an opportunity to market themselves. However, for the student it’s potentially nightmarish, requiring multiple applications across various institutions. If the regional universities could agree on a single application process and work together to promote the merits of a universal, regional scholarship, this might be attractive to their students and encourage them to stay.

Second, the current focus on scholarships will hopefully reinvigorate regional universities’ attempts to attract philanthropic scholarship funding, perhaps even on the same scale as Andrew Forrest’s recent $65 million bequest to Western Australian universities. Other mining magnates, such as Clive Palmer or Joe Gutnick, might be encouraged to do more to support the universities in the very regions that have made them wealthy. These could be stand-alone scholarships or jointly funded ones, with the universities asking philanthropists to match their own scholarships revenue dollar-for-dollar.

It is likely the proposed scholarship scheme will encourage more, not less, regional students to move. The extent to which it will constitute a “brain drain” depends on several factors. First, the extent to which elite metropolitan universities will be able to generate more scholarships revenue compared to regional universities. Second, whether or not these scholarships target regional students. Third, the overall number of scholarships made available.

Although concerning for regional universities, the proposed structure of the scholarships is in line with the government’s focus on the language of “choice”. It also aligns with broader equity principles of equal opportunity and greater support for disadvantaged students.

Regional universities are a cornerstone of our national higher education system and, as a general principle, need to be supported. However, in this particular instance, the focus needs to be on the regional student and not the regional university.