What It Means to Rarefy the Tuckwells

I’m writing this as a Tuckwell Scholar who comes from an extremely wealthy background. I went to a well-to-do grammar school, and I was taught to stack my CV from a very young age. I learnt how to interview well, and how to game the system so that I could outperform my peers in terms of ATAR. I am the exact person who the average ANU student complains about when they talk about the stratified and pretentious nature of the Tuckwell Scholars. I am not writing this on behalf of the Tuckwell Program, but rather purely from a personal note, so believe me when I say that I am a rarity among the scholars. Most Tuckwells are not from inner Melbourne or inner Sydney – we would have at least as many low SES and/or regional students as your average catered college. Most Tuckwells did not get 99.95 ATARs – many, in fact, got substantially less, and bonus points are counted in terms of gaining admission to the scholarship. Most Tuckwells aren’t public about the fact that they’re Tuckwells, because with few exceptions, they weren’t socialised in elite private schools to constantly name drop and brag about themselves. There are criticisms to be made of the program – sure – but many that exist now are actively unfair. This article exists to dispel those criticisms.

Firstly, there is the argument about elitism in terms of selection. As stated above, this isn’t particularly well supported by candidates who were, in fact, selected. In the most recent cohort, the 2016s, among the 24 scholars we had, two are from Wagga Wagga (six from regional NSW more generally) and only two from Sydney. Only seven out of 24 come from Sydney or Melbourne. Of the two from Sydney, only one was from a private school, and of the five from Melbourne, only two are from a private school. The story is similar in other states. Across the entire cohort, over half came from state schools, and of those who came from private schools, only a handful came from what be considered “elite private schools”. This distribution is reflected across the other cohorts. Sure, some of us definitely do come from inner Melbourne and inner Sydney, but not particularly more than the actual proportion of the population which lives there. Moreover, to dismiss the Tuckwell Scholarship as “a scholarship by elites going to elites” actively dismisses the incredible amounts of hard work given by regional and low SES students to get here. Is it comparatively easy (relative to an average member of the population) to get an elite scholarship for me as someone who went to a private school? Sure. Was it that easy for everyone? Not a chance. Many of my peers in my cohort in particular overcame incredibly substantial barriers not just getting the scholarship, but even applying in the first place. To dismiss all Tuckwells as privileged brats means dismissing that many scholars are the first in their family to come to university, or had to move an incredible distance from regional Australia, or had to overcome incredibly substantial personal adversity. Are we incredibly lucky to have gotten the scholarship, and does it make us comparatively better off than most ANU students? Without a doubt. Would many of us have even been close to this privileged without it? Not a chance. For the most part, the Tuckwell Scholarship is not a transfer from “elites to elites” – it’s a transfer from “elites to people the Selection Panel thought were interesting”, and while that includes some elites, it’s worth noting that most university staff also find inner city CV stackers to be unbelievably uninteresting. The people lambasted as “privileged inner city rich kids” are a very small proportion of the overall cohort. Sure, maybe we shouldn’t have received it in the vein of equity, but there’s a heck of a lot who still should have.

The second (and stronger) counter-argument is that the money should have gone towards the greater student body. This is a valid point – mental health services, better campus lighting, etc. are in dire need of additional funding. And while the new colleges will provide much needed on-campus accommodation owned by ANU (read: slightly less profiteering than UniLodge), it’s probably worth noting that most underprivileged or otherwise vulnerable students can’t afford catered accommodation in the first instance. Obviously I have a strong vested interest in saying this, but I’d completely agree with the fact that the funds should be diverted – if the money were university money. Taxpayer subsidised university funds probably should only go towards equity scholarships, or better mental health services. The important point to note is that this isn’t university money. It was a private donation, by a private individual. The money did not exist independent of funding a merit scholarship, not an equity scholarship.
While the (now) $105 million definitely could have funded a lot of equity scholarships, it’s important to note that it was never going to. The Scholarship tries to be equitable in its distribution and not unfairly favour the rich, as established earlier, but as private money, it was never obliged to be entirely redistributive. The alternative to philanthropy was personal consumption, which is unambiguously worse for everyone at ANU. While the number of beneficiaries at ANU is relatively small, it’s important to note that they do exist – Graham and Louise Tuckwell are not the only beneficiaries of the donation. And it’s important to note that because, while they definitely could have chosen to put it all into equity scholarships, they would probably have received a lot less judgement were they to have bought a yacht instead (which would be unambiguously less good for ANU). The donation they made was where they, as private citizens, felt their money was best spent, and that is different to spending taxpayer/university dollars on a select few.

The Tuckwell Scholarship is not without its faults, but it is not a program designed to redistribute university wealth to the one percent. It is, for better or worse, a program designed by a philanthropist to provide an opportunity to students across Australia. Designating it as the epitome of ANU’s elitism dismisses the very real and oppressive adversity, both economic and personal, that many scholars had to overcome to attain the scholarship, and crowds out valid criticisms of actual university spending.

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