Last month, Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan launched the AU$94 million (US$64 million) Destination Australia programme.
After spending six months developing the funding guidelines outlining how the scheme – which supports Australian and international students to study in regional Australia – will work, the Department of Education has given education providers in rural and regional Australia just 24 days to respond.
They are now scrambling to design new scholarship programmes, deciding how they will promote them to high-achieving students and trying to explain how these scholarships will contribute to ‘growth and quality’ within their institution and their community before the 12 September deadline.
Destination Australia has effectively replaced the Endeavour Leadership Program which for 16 years supported Australian students and professionals in their education abroad as well as international scholars in Australia. While Endeavour struggled for years without a political champion, the new programme is clearly close to the heart of Minister Tehan, who represents a regional electorate.
In essence, funds that previously supported international engagement are now redirected towards addressing geographical disadvantage in Australia, which the government has judged to be a more pressing issue.
Given this redirection, it is very significant that the programme is open to both local and international students, with funds to be split evenly between the two groups.
It serves the twin purposes of improving access to local students in line with the government’s recently released National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy and helping to steer some international students away from capital cities (along with the recent increase in duration of post-study work visas for international graduates in regional areas).
What do we know about Destination Australia?
The Department of Education’s website states that “over 1,000 scholarships of AU$15,000 will be offered per year”. With a total budget of AU$19.5 million per year, the outgoings for the department will be approximately AU$15 million in scholarship payments and AU$1.5 million to universities in marketing, promotion and administration costs.
This represents a substantial 85% of the total budget allocation, leaving only 15% to cover departmental overheads. It is evident in the guidelines that this will be achieved through a delivery model that is light-touch in terms of red tape (at least after the institutional bids process is completed).
This model is encouraging, as it means the vast majority of the funding will be placed directly in the hands of students and the universities in which they are enrolled. The model signals the government’s increased confidence in the sector to make decisions on international and domestic student recruitment which best meet the needs of the Australian higher education system.
It enables the sector to leverage its enormous investment in student recruitment activities by directly determining who should be awarded the individual scholarships, with apparently minimal bureaucratic input.
The flat rate of AU$15,000 per student per year will have an impact in several areas.
A scholarship of AU$15,000 per year to an international student is far from a “full-ride” scholarship. As such, the programme will attract only those who are able to fund the tuition fee shortfall, housing, travel and living costs.
Domestic recipients who choose to repay through the Higher Education Loan Program will be able to use the full scholarship allocation for housing costs and living expenses. Some domestic recipients who already live near eligible institutions will not even need to leave home.
A good feature of the new programme is the provision for institutions to claim AU$1,500 per scholarship recipient for marketing, promotion and administration costs. This will support institutional costs in promoting awareness of regional study opportunities.
It will be interesting to observe how institutions go about this and it would be a reasonable bet that the benefits to the programme will go well beyond the modest cost of this provision (approximately AU$1.5 million per year).
With programme funding evenly distributed across four years, the pipeline effect will mean there will be fewer new grants available in each successive year up until 2023.
The website declaration of “over 1,000 scholarships of AU$15,000 [to] be offered per year” is therefore misleading, as in each successive year some of the 1,000 individuals being funded will be the same individuals who were funded in the previous year as they will be enrolled in programmes of more than one year’s duration.
It is encouraging that the programme may be used to fund any level of full-time study from Certificate IV up to PhD, but the pipeline effect may encourage institutions to focus their proposals on shorter programmes (such as coursework masters) in order to reach more students.
Making it work
The very clear emphasis in the guidelines on institutions running their own processes, including recipient selection, indicates that the Department of Education wants to take a hands-off approach and not bog the programme down in red tape by doing the marketing, scholar selection or intensive monitoring itself.
This has several advantages to the sector. Placing marketing and scholar selection into the hands of the receiving institutions enables institutions to use the scholarships strategically to support new and existing student recruitment initiatives and to leverage marketing activities.
In addition, institutions will also be permitted to reallocate to another student the balance of any scholarship funds remaining if a scholar becomes ineligible (for example, by withdrawing from study), presumably with minimal bureaucratic intervention.
This is a welcome departure from the Endeavour programme, which was seen by many as a heavy-handed and even an infantilising modus operandi, requiring monthly check-ins and other onerous reporting requirements on scholars and their supervisors. Such processes signalled a lack of trust in the ability of the education sector to manage its own students.
The process of delegating responsibility for selection of recipients in Destination Australia eliminates the enormously labour-intensive process of scholar selection for the education department, which in the final round of Endeavour had to assess 7,049 applications for just 107 individual places.
How will the success of Destination Australia be measured? The guidelines assure us that the department “will evaluate the programme to see how well the outcomes and objectives have been achieved”.
While Endeavour’s evaluation mechanisms were opaque, which was perhaps a factor in its downfall, we need to ensure a much higher level of transparency in reporting and evaluation of Destination Australia’s outcomes and impacts on regional communities, especially as they relate to international engagement.
Joanne Barker is a PhD candidate at RMIT University, supported by the Australian Government’s Research Training Program, and a former director international at two Australian universities. Professor Christopher Ziguras is deputy dean, international, at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Australia.