Government and governance, Education | Australia

26 November 2019

With the government driving a push to the regions with Destination Australia Scholarships, the bush has welcomed an influx of students. Despite its potential as a regional location, South Australia has been conspicuously unsuccessful in securing the scholarships and deserves an explanation, Chris Ronan writes.

In early 2019, the federal government announced the establishment of the ‘Destination Australia’ Scholarship program to support both International and Australian students to study in regional Australia through a $15,000 per year scholarship for Certificate IV through to doctoral level students.

This large investment into regional higher education aimed to attract more students to study, live, and eventually work in regional Australia with the intention of injecting much-needed funding and human capital into regional economies.

More on this: Pay attention to the vocational education gap

1,180 of these scholarships have now been allocated to tertiary education providers across Australia to commence in 2020, yet the state and territory breakdown of these allocations is surprising.

Comparing the scholarships allocated to each state with their respective populations, South Australia had the lowest number of scholarships allocated in both absolute and per-capita terms by a significant margin.

Victoria and Western Australia each saw 4.7 scholarships awarded for every 100,000 people. Queensland and New South Wales also had comparable figures with 5.2 and 4.0 scholarships awarded per 100,000 people respectively.

The less populous states and territories, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, both performed significantly better with 14.1 and 22.4 scholarships allocated per 100,000 people respectively.

Given the federal government’s policy goal was to promote regional Australia to domestic metropolitan and international students to stimulate local economies, the favouring of the Northern Territory makes sense due to its weaker economic outlook when compared to other states.

Likewise, only 19.3 per cent of Tasmanians have a university degree, which is the lowest of any state or territory, and boosting this number would have positive implications for local development.

More on this: Regional policy, regional deals, and regional voices

In contrast, South Australia had just 32 scholarships allocated to the state, the lowest allocation in both absolute and per-capita terms. This equates to 1.8 scholarship per 100,000 people or almost three times less than the per-capita allocations for Queensland.

South Australia performed poorly when compared to every state and territory, with New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia receiving more than double the number of scholarships per capita as South Australia. The greatest disparity in per capita allocation is with the Northern Territory who received more than 12 times the number of scholarships than South Australia, so what happened?

The Destination Australia allocation process required institutions to apply for the number of scholarships that they desired.

Did South Australian tertiary education institutions simply not apply, or apply for too few places? Or did the federal government make an active decision to limit the scholarships allocated to South Australia?

It is impossible to know for sure because the federal government has not released the data on how many scholarships each higher education institution requested in the application process.

Without this information, it is impossible to explain why there is such a stark difference in scholarship allocations in South Australia compared to the rest of the nation.

It is surprising that South Australian higher education institutions and government did not work harder to capitalise on funding to boost population and economic growth in regional areas, especially given South Australia is experiencing lacklustre economic and employment outcomes.

South Australia also suffers from a metrocentric population with 75 per cent of people residing in greater Adelaide. This would mean that any chance to incentivise metropolitan students to move to a regional area and redistribute the population could be an incredible economic and cultural development opportunity for regional South Australian communities.

A key difference from other states was that no VET/TAFE provider in South Australia received allocations of scholarships, but it is unknown if any VET/TAFE institutions applied to receive the scholarships in the first place. Additionally, the allocation to the regional campuses of South Australian universities is remarkably small considering their infrastructure.

Regional South Australia is well equipped to host large numbers of students. The state’s largest regional university campus in Whyalla even has purpose-built student accommodation available, creating the perfect environment to attract and support large numbers of potential students in conjunction with the $15,000 per annum Destination Australia scholarship.

For comparison, a significantly smaller campus in Broome received 40 scholarships, while Whyalla was allocated just 10. This situation is perplexing. Australians should be asking questions of the South Australian higher education institutions, the federal government, and VET/TAFE providers with a regional presence in South Australia why this has occurred.

In order to understand what happened, the federal government’s scholarship allocation process needs to be more transparent. Although it has published a breakdown of where the 1,180 scholarships have been allocated to, they have not disclosed the total number of scholarships that higher education institutions applied for in the first place.

Without knowing these numbers, it is impossible to discern if the South Australian higher education institutions have neglected the regional areas of their state by failing to apply for an adequate number of scholarships, or if the federal government made an active choice to allocate fewer scholarships to South Australia.

Either way, the federal government must be more transparent with the Destination Australia scholarship process. Regional South Australia deserves an explanation as to why it missed out on such a potentially transformative opportunity for its communities.

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