Who’s your daddy? Myths of merit and elite education scholarships

Protesters this week at the Whitehouse Institute of Design where Tony Abbott’s daughter received a scholarship, which he said was based on merit. AAP

Please answer all questions. 1. Who’s your daddy? _______ Thank you for your application. We will take a cursory glance at your folio and inform you of our decision.

This is from a fake application form for admission to the Whitehouse Institute of Design circulating on Facebook. The scholarship awarded to the Prime Minister’s daughter by this institute and his claim that she won it on merit have met much scepticism.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has claimed that access for disadvantaged students will be improved through new merit-based scholarships. But how fair are Mr Pyne’s scholarships and how fair is “merit” for that matter?

Reforms will perpetuate inequality

Many observers predict an increasing gap between the “best” universities and “the rest” now that caps have been removed on what they can charge. “The rest” will predictably flounder, as public and new private providers compete on price.

“The rest” is where most pre-degree qualifications are located, so these will suffer too. So what’s the problem if scholarships are also offered in this less wealthy and esteemed part of the sector? Existing patterns of access won’t change. The vast bulk of students from poor families will continue to attend poorly funded institutions and acquire qualifications that pay far fewer dividends.

What of the “best”? With the freedom to charge whatever fees the market will bear, Australia’s elite universities will become ever more expensive and exclusive. Students from elite schools are already over-represented at these universities. Will the new needs-based scholarships challenge this situation? And anyway, why are students from elite schools over-represented? Is it because of merit?

Elite schools and merit

Elite schools claim merit as their signature. But merit is a slippery term with a lot of social subtext.

There are two types of elite schools in this country. There are academically selective schools in the government school sector. “Merit” here is problematic, because of private tutoring. It is widely known, although not verified through research, that tutoring is commonplace. It has helped many students to get in and helps many to get through with the top grades required for direct progress to the top of the education ladder. But the proportion of such schools in the overall schooling sector is small.

The biggest proportion of elite schools is in the private sector with most in the independent sector. Wealth is their main entry criterion, although they usually have merit entry tests. Such schools provide small numbers of scholarships, usually for merit in fields the school wants to enhance such as music, sport and academia. A merit/need formula may apply, but their scholarships are seldom just need-based.

More broadly, these elite schools claim merit mainly on the basis of their elevated exit results. As economic, cultural and social capital abound, the table is always set for educational and career success.

The elite institution Frances Abbott attended for free. AAP

Elite schools take no chances with their reputations for merit. Their students are carefully groomed for success — which is primarily understood as gaining entry to the most prestigious universities and faculties. This constrains curriculum engagement and students’ plans for their future.

Students are hot-housed, which involves inculcating a hyper-competitive, hyper-ambitious mindset. Hot-housing produces a school climate in which there is pressure on students to be merit trophies for the school, their families and each other. In the case of elite private schools, hot-housing also means having access to the best learning opportunities and resources money can buy — in academic studies, the arts and sport. Everything is available to help students “be the best they can be”.

As David Gonski stressed in his report on school funding, the differences between highly and poorly resourced schools are painfully stark. The consequences for students in poor schools are dire, as they are for the nation in terms of national educational achievement and equity.

The elite school-elite university nexus

The cards are heavily stacked in favour of students from elite schools. This is why they are over-represented in elite universities and why such students will often win “merit” scholarships. Further, the best-funded merit/needs scholarships in elite universities usually require very high end-of-school results. Even the cleverest students from poor backgrounds and from poorly resourced schools are unlikely to achieve the necessary results.

These students may, however, be “let in” under other access programs with less financial support. The system is heavily stacked against such students. So too is the typical mindset of many elite universities.

Students from elite schools are over-represented in elite universities such as the University of Melbourne. AAP

After a cursory nod to the links between educational success and poverty, this mindset assumes that an individual’s end-of-school results are the best gauge of merit and potential. It thus fails to understand the depth and scale of systemic educational disadvantage.

It is not valid or fair to compare the end-of-school results of advantaged students with the results of disadvantaged students. Hence the logic of allocating elite university places and scholarships on the basis of-end-of school results alone is being questioned by some of the more open-minded.

Further, because of the links between elite schools, socio-economic advantage, private tutoring and hot-housing, their students’ final results are inflated. Their results are thus not a good predictor of university success. Research evidence shows that, once left to their own devices, elite school students perform no better and often less well than their comparable government schools peers.

But what will happen when elite university fees skyrocket under Mr Pyne’s plans? Who but the rich will be able to afford the fees or the subsequent debt? Unless there is a major mind shift, the nexus between elite schools and elite universities will predictably tighten.

Predictably too elite public universities will become more like elite private schools: citadels of privilege in an overall system where “the rest” are under-resourced. And who will win the “equity” scholarships that increase as a direct result of these universities’ fee rises?

It is improbable that these universities will alter their scholarship requirement for exceptionally high entry scores. So most students from poor families and schools won’t even come close to claiming such scholarships.

Unless elite universities are more intelligent about merit, access and their grounds for awarding all scholarships, money will continue to be the main path to merit. And, ultimately, “Who’s your daddy?” will still matter a great deal.


Read The Conversation’s coverage of fee deregulation and proposed changes to the sector in the 2014 federal budget here.