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Flaws in Indigenous Scholarship Program

By Margaret Clark - posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Indigenous Education scholarships established by the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) are one of the feel good programs that have come to prominence in 2013. But I have serious concerns.

What can be wrong with setting up a scholarship scheme to support Indigenous students to attend Australia's top schools?

To be honest, there would be nothing wrong with a private not-for-profit foundation continuing this work. There is no rule that individual funding decisions must be based on the rational consideration of alternatives. Private foundations can fund whatever they wish.


My early concerned related to the media saturation of good news Indigenous scholarship stories. The glowing promotion, some of it blatant self promotion by its Founder, Andrew Penfold,, was starting to worry me There seemed to be no voice asking questions. Is this really as good as it sounds? is this really the best way to invest in closing the gap? What about all the kids left behind? and so on.

But when the then Gillard Government got on board and gave the AIEF $20 million with almost no strings attached, I start to have more serious concerns about transparency and accountability – after all, it is our tax dollars. I knew that the Commonwealth had given most of its specific purpose funds to states as part of the COAG reforms of 2008 and that the Indigenous budget was very small indeed. How could funding this be justified? What was defunded to enable this? What due consideration was given to the comparative weight of claims for this expenditure?

But now the Abbot Government has rewarded Andrew Penfold, by appointing him to the newly formed Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, thus sending a clear signal about their endorsement of this type of Indigenous education investment. Alarm bells are sounding and I I must speak up.

Peter Singer, the well known ethicist suggests that our penchant for individualistic and emotional responses to suffering and injustice over more cost effective and structural ones is a flaw in our emotional makeup that has developed over millions of years when we could help only people we could see in front of us. But it is no longer an adequate justification for decision-making.

Singer's recent critique of the public enthusiasm for Batkid went viral recently. His comments are spot on.

You'd have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old - and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease - doesn't warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions.


Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do.

It is much easier for us to think with our heart than with our head. But it is not noble, it is not worthy of high adulation and most importantly it is not the role of Government. They have an obligation to undertake a rationale, impartial and considered analysis of alternatives and to invest in areas that most promote the common good. They also need to be aware that funding an organization delivers benefits to that organization beyond mere dollars. It bestows a legitimacy and credibility that can be used to leverage more funding and more influence.

In relation to the AIEF project our hearts tell us that through this program we can save a child from living in a remote dysfunctional Indigenous community. We can send him/her to a 'top Aussie school' and create through him/her a future Indigenous leader or even, as AIEF suggests, a future Prime Minister. We can solve 'the Indigenous problem' one child at a time.

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About the Author

Margaret Clark is an education writer, blogger and tweeter mainly on issues related to public education, Indigenous and gender politics and policies. Before retirement Margaret was the CEO of the Australian College of Educators (ACE) and in that role produced many articles and submissions on the Australian Education Revolution agenda. You can find her articles on the ACE Website (, in Education Review and in the ACE membership Journal Professional Educator. She also produces a blog Prior to the CEO role Margaret worked in a senior role in the Australian Public service and most recently in the NT Department of Education and Training.

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