Fresh from whatever he did at Fairfax, the new University of NSW vice-chancellor is sacking uni staff on one hand while launching a scholarship war against Sydney University to buy the brighter students.

As The SMH reports, UNSW last year introduced a blanket $10,000 scholarship for anyone scoring 99.9 in the HSC. Sydney Uni subsequently matched it. Now UNSW is drilling down a level with $4,000 scholarships for the dux of every NSW high school before they even sit the HSC exam – all 830 of them, minus, of course, those who score 99.9 and any who still don’t hit the required UAI for their desired course.

There is an element of social equity in this scheme in that the brightest boy or girl at disadvantaged schools finally gets a look-in when his or her marks otherwise wouldn’t rate a mention. But it could also be argued that scholarships are being wasted on students who are not academically gifted.

The greater social equity question for both university and high school scholarships is that there generally is no hint of means testing. By reason of both nature and nurture, top students come disproportionately from relatively wealthy backgrounds. Many of them don’t need a scholarship to attend the school or university of their choice.

The dux of your local GPS school has already won life’s lottery – but Professor Fred and his peers are chasing them with offers of a couple of winning scratchies as well.

And if you’re just looking at the private school scholarship machinery, it’s easy to think that most often it comes down to an attempt to buy a mention of the school’s name in the newspaper with no suggestion of a needs basis or hint of social equity. You can easily find examples of middle or working class parents struggling to afford private school fees but in the process also paying the way for the bright children of millionaires.

And that’s without touching the Haileybury College habit of buying entire volleyball teams. Wonder what the Christian imperative is in that.

Peter Fray

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