A graduation hat on Australia

The Tuckwell Myth

It’s time to dispel the myth that the Tuckwell Scholarship is a merit-based scholarship. It is a myth which has proliferated not only among people associated with the Scholarship, but also among its critics. It’s a myth that is damaging not only to the Scholarship’s reputation but also to Scholars, applicants, and the wider community.

The Tuckwell Scholarship is not a merit-based scholarship. More importantly, it should never be. Rather, it is a values-based scholarship awarded because the recipient displays carefully selected criteria reflecting the values that the Scholarship Program deems most important.

Firstly, let us consider the overarching vision as stated on the Tuckwell website. Established through the generosity of Graham and Louise Tuckwell, “The program has a focus on giving back to Australia” and the vision is to “see highly talented and motivated school leavers to fulfil their potential and reinvest their knowledge, skills and experience in ways that positively benefit others.” The Scholarship “is designed to attract and extend the abilities of students who wish to build and strengthen Australia as a nation and to give back to Australia through the application of their skills.” It is all about giving back to the community, in more ways than just academics.

Next, let us consider the criteria by which the Scholarship is awarded. According to the website, it is awarded based on four criteria:

  1.     Academic potential and achievements to date;
  2.     Other significant achievements to date, of any type;
  3.     Demonstration of the Attributes of a Tuckwell Scholar; and
  4.     A desire to eventually give back to Australia.

Looking at points one and two, the Scholarship is at least partially merit-based. The minimum ATAR requirement is 95 (EAS bonus points can be taken into account) – lower than equivalent scholarships around the country, and in particular lower than the ANU’s premier merit scholarship (the National University Scholarship) minimum of 99.90 (no bonus points). Applicants are also required to have studied both English and Maths in Year 11 or 12. Thus, even the merit-based aspects reflect the value of being well-rounded academically and in other activities.

But by far, the most weight is put on the values that the applicant demonstrates through these achievements which signal a desire to eventually give back to their community.

By no means am I saying that all Scholars demonstrate all of the attributes at all times. Far from it. Instead, it is composed of a list of aspirational values that the Program believes are essential for fulfilling the vision of giving back to the community.

Finally, throughout the application and beyond, the applicant needs to demonstrate how they and their family are “connected and committed” to their community and Australia more generally. There is therefore a large emphasis on connection to place and eventually giving back to the community.

This is my fourth year in the Program, and for me, there has always existed immense pressure to be a perfect Tuckwell Scholar. Ever since I came to the ANU, I was confronted with questions like “Oh but how can you be a Tuckwell Scholar?” before referencing a mistake I made or a flaw I possess, or exclamations like “Wow, but you seem just like an ordinary person” following their realisation. The promotion of the Scholarship as merits-based feeds into a culture of toxicity, competition, and imposter syndrome.

To me, the Scholarship should not be about how perfect someone is, but rather an ascription of the values that we aspire to. Merit and achievements may be important but are devoid of meaning in and of themselves. The significance of our achievements rests on how they are grounded in or contribute to the aspirational values of giving back to the community.

Too often has the categorisation of the Scholarship as ‘merit-based’ been used as an excuse in response to constructive criticism of the program. It has been used to defend accusations that the Scholarship disadvantages applicants from low SES backgrounds, or the lack of State/Territory representation, disappointing ethnic and cultural diversity, and lack of representation of minorities, in particular Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

A scholarship which is truly meritorious would not need to defend itself against such claims, as a merit-based scholarship would automatically reflect the diversity of Australia’s peoples, notwithstanding any systemic barriers to achievement faced by minority groups. But a Scholarship which claims to be Australia’s most transformative scholarship needs to be better than that.

To Graham and Louise Tuckwell and those at ANU tasked with administering the Scholarship: please consider the message you are sending to young people all around the country. I know for a fact that there are students from low SES backgrounds or from minority groups that have been discouraged from applying simply because the message that they are receiving (whether true or not) is that the Scholarship will not accept people like them. And this is a great shame, a loss to the Scholarship, the ANU community and Australia more generally.

In light of our Parliament’s moving and unifying response to Senator Anning’s divisive comments last week, I urge the University and the Tuckwell Scholarship Program to consider the values it stands for, and the values that they would like potential students to hold.

Listening to the speeches on the morning of August 15, I can remember the exact points where I was moved to tears: Senator Wong’s speech, where she asked our leaders to consider the impact in schoolyards across Australia; Dr Aly’s speech, in which she reflected on an event she attended with young migrant children where she realised that they were still facing the same challenges that she faced 30 years ago; and Senator Gichuhi’s speech, where she asked “What am I going to say to my daughter, trying to apply for a job, coming to me to saying, ‘Mum, I don’t think I can get this.’” These are the questions the Scholarship needs to consider.

And finally, to potential applicants who may stumble across this article: do not be disheartened. I believe that we, and the Scholarship, can be better than this. If you’re on the fence about applying, I urge you to do it. Apply. Imagine how much worse things might be if people like you and me didn’t give it a go.

I and other Scholars are committed to ensuring that the values that we represent reflect the diversity and achievement of the Australian community.

Disclaimer: Jonathan Tjandra is a Tuckwell Scholar and Managing Editor of Woroni. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tuckwell Scholarship Program or Woroni.