The Tuckwell Scholarship, valued between $76,000 and $136,000, is awarded to twenty-five individuals annually for three to five years of undergraduate study. It aims to allow “talented and motivated students to realise their potential by providing financial support, personal enrichment and development opportunities.” To be eligible for the scholarship, students must have studied English and Mathematics in Grades 11 and 12 and have a predicted ATAR of at least 95, or if they are eligible for consideration under the Educational Access Scheme, an ATAR of at least 90. Applicants are considered against four criteria: academic potential and achievements, other significant achievements, demonstration of the Tuckwell attributes, and connection and commitment to Australia.

The website says that the scholarship is looking for people who have “done the best with what was available to them” and that “it is not the hand you are dealt [in life] that counts but what you do with it.” From an analysis of the schools attended by all 275 Tuckwell recipients in the scholarship’s 11-year history, it is evident that most scholars are dealt an incredibly hefty hand.

The number of recipients from government and non-government schools slightly favours government schools. At first glance, it is promising that the scholarship is awarded to public school students. However, 64.5 percent of students nationwide are enrolled in government schools, meaning the swing towards government schools should be much higher.

Most recipients are from New South Wales, followed by Queensland and Victoria. Only four Australian Capital Territory students and two Northern Territory students have received the scholarship in its 11-year run. 72 percent of students attended schools in major cities. Only two recipients went to a school in a remote region; no recipients have attended schools in very remote areas.

The Tuckwell application asks applicants whether they studied a higher-level maths or English subject. Research shows that subject selection correlates to socioeconomic status. More wealthy students do stereotypically ‘smarter’ subjects that can allow them to attain better ATARs. In contrast, students of low socioeconomic status and those from non-metropolitan areas are pushed into vocational subjects and subjects with average achievement levels.

Students in regional and remote areas often do not have access to more difficult subjects due to a lack of demand. Schools will naturally allocate their funding to subjects that fill up a classroom at the expense of the handful of students who wish to do an extension subject. Gender also plays a factor, with a 2018 article from The Sydney Morning Herald reporting that boys made up 64 percent of the cohort studying the highest-level maths subject for the HSC, while girls made up 72 percent of the highest-level English subject. Girls dominated textiles and design, dance, and biology, while boys dominated physics and engineering studies.

The Index of Relative Socioeconomic Advantage and Disadvantage (IRSAD) was calculated using the Local Government Areas where the schools of Tuckwell recipients were located. The index demonstrates the economic and social conditions of people and households within an area. A higher score points to advantage, while a lower score points to disadvantage. Sixty-six  percent of recipients attended schools in areas with the highest index score, demonstrating that the scholarship goes to students that might actually not need the financial support at all to study at the ANU.

Furthermore, the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) was created by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. It allows for a fair comparison of NAPLAN test achievement by schools across Australia. The national average score in 2022 was 1000. The Tuckwell average amongst recipients’ schools was 1110. 

While the Tuckwell Scholarship does not claim to be equity-based, this data shows that it is available to a sub-sect of incoming ANU students. Trends demonstrate that students who attended a school in a major city, preferably NSW, are far more likely to receive the scholarship than a student from a regional school within a territory. 

The OECD’s Equity in Education report found that inequity in Australian schools worsened between 2006 and 2015. Australia ranks fourth among OECD countries for the most class-stratified system: “disadvantage [is] twice as concentrated as expected if social privilege were evenly distributed across all schools.” Furthermore, UNICEF ranks Australia in the bottom third of OECD countries in providing equitable access to quality education. As a result, disadvantaged students are denied the same outcomes as students from more advantageous socioeconomic and geographical areas.

In 2011, David Gonski delivered the final Review of Funding for Schooling report to the Gillard government. The report defined equity in education as the ability of every child to achieve their potential irrespective of school, culture, economic background, property, power, or possession. 

The report recommended imposing a “sector-blind” funding model that allocated money to public and private schools based on need. A Student Resource Standard is a base amount with up to six needs-based loadings. It is used to estimate the amount of public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. The 2023 rate is $16,397 per secondary student. Four student-based loadings are available: students with disability loading, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander loading, socio-educational disadvantage loading and low-English proficiency loading. There are also two school-based loadings for school size (i.e., small schools) and school location (i.e., rural schools). 

The SRS base amount is discounted for non-government schools depending on the school community’s Capacity to Contribute (CTC) to the school’s operating costs. The higher the CTC score, the more the SRS is reduced. There are exemptions for non-government special schools or majority Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools.

However, policies implemented by successive governments have not effectively reflected the report’s recommendations. The Gillard government allowed the Catholic system and other private schools to maintain revenue from the government. The Abbott government’s 2014 budget scrapped school funding increases intended for public schools. The Turnbull government introduced a Commonwealth funding cap of 20 percent for public schools, with the remainder to be covered by state governments. For private schools, the government introduced the opposite. The Morrison government negotiated a $4.6 billion increase in funding for Catholic schools over ten years. No additional funds were designated to government schools. As Bri Lee writes in her book Who Gets to Be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge, federal politicians and their attitudes towards religion and conservatism impact disadvantaged students by determining who gets money regardless of need. 

In the decade since the Gonski review, funding to non-government schools has increased almost twice as much as funding to government schools. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority data shows that 98 percent of private schools are funded above the SRS, and more than 98 percent of public schools are funded below it. If all schools were funded to the same benchmark, government schools would receive more funding than non-government schools. This is not the case.

Financial data from 2021 of the schools attended by Tuckwell recipients show that the average amount of net recurrent income was $22,333 per student, which is higher than the SRS base rate. While non-government schools have substantial school fees, if the SRS base rate were discounted per the CTC, the amount would be lower. 68 percent of recipients had a net recurrent income above the SRS rate. 69 percent of recipients with recurrent income greater than the SRS rate attended a non-government school. Of the income below the SRS rate, 93 percent of the recipients attended a government school.

This funding issue is exacerbated by the fact that private schools can source capital funding from both state and federal governments. In contrast, state schools are typically limited to the state government. Private schools can also fundraise for themselves, while public schools cannot. Recurrent funding covers the ongoing costs of running a school and cannot be spent on capital projects. There is limited transparency around fund allocation and spending, opening up the possibility for the misuse of governmental funds and the ability to shift money from recurrent to capital, according to Adrian Piccoli, the director of UNSW’s Gonski Institute for Education and the former NSW Minister for Education. Piccoli states that the NSW Government gives the Catholic school system $800 million a year in exchange for a one-page form that verifies that the money has been spent appropriately. 

In September 2020, ABC News reported that more than $300 million in public funding was being diverted from the poorer NSW Catholic primary schools to those more affluent by 2023. This was designed to keep school fees low in wealthy parts of Sydney to prevent them from attending other well-funded metropolitan schools. The Victorian Auditor-General, the National Audit Office, the NSW Auditor-General, and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audits have all raised concerns about the lack of transparency. Nevertheless, the National Catholic Education Commission and the Independent Schools Council of Australia have contended that current accountability measures ensure that recurrent funding is spent on the operating costs of schools. 

An ABC News investigation into school funding conducted in 2019 found that the four wealthiest schools in Australia spent $402 million on new facilities and renovations despite teaching less than 13,000 students. Comparatively, the poorest 1,800 schools spent $370 million and taught 107,000 students. 

Interestingly, the additional funding to private schools has yet to produce higher-achieving students, according to the Centre for Policy Development. This makes sense, as an aquatics centre doesn’t mean a student will score better on their HSC. It also goes to show that despite coming from schools with higher funding, Tuckwell recipients are not necessarily ‘smarter’ than students from lesser funded schools or more ‘deserving’. 

A Tuckwell recipient could live in the most expensive room on campus on their scholarship alone. For someone from Bellevue Hill, not receiving the scholarship would not prevent them from studying at the ANU. For someone from Peppimenarti, it could be the difference between whether they had the means to go to university at all. 

It is easy to say that the Tuckwell scholarship is not intended to be an equity-based scholarship. But, it is also not a merits based scholarship either. So what exactly is it? It’s a scholarship mostly for the rich. It gives more and more to students who are already incredibly privileged in their educational access, thus continuing a cycle that maintains the status quo.

The Albanese government is held a wide-ranging school review in October of last year. Underfunded schools are desperately hoping that the government will deliver on the recommendations of the Gonski review. Education inequity is an extremely troubling phenomenon in Australia. The disparity in government funding leaves public schools underfunded. Non-government schools receive more public funding than they are entitled to. This deprives underprivileged students who do not have the means to afford a fancy private school education of facilities, resources, and opportunities. Opportunities that one day may manifest as the Tuckwell Scholarship. 

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