Australia is using aid to fund a program that may be propping up structural inequalities in developing countries and has yet to be proven to be effective. Currently, the scholarship program is being used as a tool for Australia’s national interest and fails to allow communities to determine their own development needs. We spending millions on a program that does not work or, at most, is helping only a handful of people?

The Australian government spends millions of your overseas aid dollars on scholarships, some of which are handed to foreign politicians’ children while others fund courses in design and photography. However, a number of independent reviews have revealed that AusAID struggles to measure whether the program actually works.

Australia Awards Scholarships

Australia Awards Scholarships are long term development awards administered by AusAID. The scholarships provide applicants from eligible developing countries an opportunity to obtain a tertiary qualification through Australian universities or vocational education and training institutions. The 14/15 budget for this is $310 million, unchanged from the 13/14 budget for 4,500 scholarships and fellowships. This includes scholarships supporting students from developing countries to study questionable development-related programs in Australia. For example, the costly and controversial $127 million Mining for Development Initiative, includes providing mining scholarships for international students to learn from Australia’s significant expertise and experience in mining from Australian companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto.
The assumption that the benefits of the scholarship program will ‘trickle-down’ to alleviate poverty is unsubstantiated and there is cause to argue that scholarship aid may be of greater benefit to Australia, particularly to our higher education industry which requires a critical mass of students to support research and teaching in Australian universities. The significant financial benefits that the scholarship program brings to Australian institutions are yet another demonstration of Australia’s boomerang aid policy.

Scholarship spending has grown over recent years and now makes up 33% of all education spending. The number of long and short–term scholars in Australia at any one time increase from between 2,500 and 3,000 in 2010 to over 6,000 by 2014 (projected). Yet despite scaling up the program, evidence on the impact of scholarships (in terms of poverty alleviation) is largely anecdotal and it is unknown how much more of a contribution an individual makes to their country’s development once they obtain an Australian scholarship.

Effective?

An evaluation of the scholarships carried out by consultant Margaret Gosling between 2008 and 2010 found they “are not clearly enough linked to the capacity-building objectives of country programs and are not able to demonstrate effectiveness as an aid modality’.” A separate study in 2008 reported, “the selection, reintegration and [monitoring and evaluation] processes of most AusAID scholarships programs are not in good shape. These problems have … consistently defeated all attempts to demonstrate any level of effectiveness.”

A 2011 Australian National Audit Office’s (ANAO) audit of the aid program counted some 30 unpublished evaluations and reviews commissioned by AusAID on scholarships and tertiary training since 2005. This is in spite of Australia signing up to the International Initiative on Aid Transparency. AusAID’s non-disclosure suggests there is little evidence the program has been particularly successful. While some scholarship reviews and evaluations were recently made public by AusAID, in response to a freedom of information request, the revelation is a good reminder both of the value of these audits and of the distance that is still to be travelled to make transparency a reality for Australia’s aid program.

The 2011 Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness concluded that the scholarship program has become too diffuse and needs to be more focused. In response to reports that access to AusAID scholarships were being restricted to elite communities and individuals (who already have far greater access to further education opportunities than the rest of the population), it recommended that the program should be more proactive in finding the best candidates, rather than simply responding to government requests. It suggested seeking candidates outside government circles, including in the civil society and the private sector.

Significant evidence exists that direct spending to national education within recipient countries leads to poverty alleviation and improves net enrolment, yet Australia’s aid initiative for national education received only $833 million in 2011-12. In other words, 40% of total aid program funding to education was spent on scholarships ($322.5 million) – significantly more than was spent on basic, second and post-secondary education combined ($203.1 million).