The Frances Abbott Scholarship Debacle

There’s been a lot of attention in the Australian media in the last week about how the Prime Minister’s daughter, Frances Abbott, was awarded a $60000 scholarship to attend a design college.

Much of the attention has been focused on how her family is quite well off, and that she didn’t need the scholarship, while some of her fellow students did. True enough. She probably didn’t need it. But…

I’ve been working in academia for some time now, and the harsh reality is that almost no scholarships are awarded based on financial need. They’re awarded based on merit. I do not begrudge someone being awarded a merit based scholarship, regardless of the financial need, as long as it is made explicitly clear how that merit is judged on a competitive basis.

Now, before you write me off, let me explain…

I come from a low socio-economic status background. My family is not well off. It took me a while to wrap my head around this when I started my PhD and got a postdoc. Scholarship applications are judged on a series of criteria relating to your grades and other relevant academic measures (journal articles, company reports, community engagement, etc.) – they don’t take into consideration your financial need. I admit that I was jealous when I started my PhD and realised that I had friends who came from well off families getting scholarships, while I struggled. But the reality is, while I had a good enough academic background to get into the program, others were better. Based solely on merit, on which scholarship applications are judged, they were better than me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but in hindsight, I understand it. So while I missed out on a prestigious government funded scholarship, I did get a partial scholarship from the university, and made up the difference with industry funding.

If Frances Abbott had been awarded a merit based scholarship, on a competitive basis, I wouldn’t be writing this blog entry.

My issue is this. Frances Abbott’s classmates were told by the faculty of the Whitehouse Institute of Design that no scholarships existed when they queried about the availability of financial support. Therefore Frances Abbott wasn’t awarded a merit based scholarship, because nobody else’s merit was judged. It is not a merit based scholarship if there is no competition because the faculty refused to allow anybody else to apply for the funding.

I appreciate that it’s hard to see someone who is already rich get a scholarship when you’re struggling financially. Been there myself. But if she’d been given it based solely on merit, then good for her. Congratulations. She wasn’t awarded it on merit though, was she? I don’t know who the design institute think they’re trying to kid here.

Honestly, I have less criticism of Frances Abbott in this case, she’s really not done anything wrong. My criticism is of the Whitehouse Institute of Design for objectionable behaviour in administering their scholarship program.

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