Scholarships and the aid program (part three): future directions for a scholarship program with impact

In part two of this series, I outlined some very positive findings from our research, funded by the Australian Development Research Awards Scheme (ADRAS), into scholarship alumni in Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique. Findings to date make clear that scholarships have an impact on the individual and their family – though the impact on their organisation and their country’s development is harder to assess. Given this, what role should scholarships play in the overall Australian aid program?

If studying in Australia costs at least $60,000 for one year while a master’s degree in Indonesia would be under [pdf] $10,000, what balance between in-Australia delivery and home-country delivery is appropriate for an aid-effective program – especially given perceived and real differences in quality?

The Australian relationships made and experience gained during in-Australia scholarship programs are a critical part of both the educational experience and the medium to long-term benefit for Australia, in the form of positive linkages and attitudes. More effort needs to be expended to maintain and institutionalise these linkages and the option, for example, of simply paying for Indonesians to study at Indonesian universities (something the aid program currently does not do) wouldn’t meet the aid program’s scholarship objectives.

So what options exist for a value-for-money scholarship program that meets objectives?

In the context of the emphasis on “innovation” that the Foreign Minister has heralded (“innovation will be the watchword”), some options emerge:

Delivery Innovation

One option would to focus on the delivery of scholarships. As suggested above, DFAT’s challenge is to provide high quality education while maintaining a strong Australian link. This makes it difficult on a broad scale to provide the obviously cheaper option of delivering tertiary level educational programs in-country.

But innovative delivery models allow for in-country delivery with Australian content. In Rwanda for example, an organisation called Kepler is offering this kind of model. Students study in Rwanda using US content provided by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from Harvard and other American universities. Kepler provides American tutors to work with the students as they follow the online content. A degree is provided by a university in the US that accredits the MOOC material.

Australia could adapt this model. Specifically, a cohort of scholarship awardees could stay in-country, follow course material from an Australian MOOC, meet weekly with their peers and an Australian tutor, and then get a degree from an Australian university. The program would be clearly Australian branded, students would have interaction with various Australians and the delivery would be enormously cheaper, thus providing an opportunity for potentially thousands more of the awardees’ compatriots to access education. Australian lecturers could deliver some content in-country and the awardees might even be able to spend a few weeks in Australia to enhance the experience.

A related option would be to build-up tertiary education services in a number of partner countries. The aid program has provided support to UPNG and the Fiji School of Medicine in the past, so an extension of this type of support could be explored.

Reduce the Cost

Another option would be to reduce the price of scholarship study in Australia. The aid program pays full international student fees to Australian universities, which are upwards of $35,000 per year. But most organisations would insist on a bulk-billing discount if they were to purchase some large number of goods from a provider each year. DFAT could certainly seek to negotiate reduced rates with universities if they were able to guarantee some minimum number of scholars per year. Universities already pay recruitment agents overseas a commission of 10% of tuition fees when a student enrols. Why DFAT is not eligible for that 10% commission is unclear. That would quickly add up to allow DFAT to provide educational opportunities to more students.

DFAT should also require universities to remain more actively engaged with their alumni on an individual and institutional level. Support should be provided (perhaps by allowing universities to keep the 10% commission) so that the links created in Australia are strengthened and maintained. For example, perhaps future ADRAS rounds (should there be any) could give extra application points to submissions that bring together alumni and their lecturers?

Scholarships seem to be a very central part of this government’s aid vision and are therefore likely to retain funding. Given this fact, more analysis and scrutiny of the the way the scholarship program is delivered and of its impact are warranted. There are considerable domestic interests tied to the scholarship program so any reform will be challenging. But overall, the transformative nature of education is undeniable and scholarship efforts need to be continually refined to increase their impact on poverty reduction, sustainable development and our collective global wellbeing.

This is the third post in a three part series on the effectiveness of scholarships in the Australian aid program, collected here

Joel Negin is a Senior Lecturer in International Public Health at the University of Sydney. 

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Joel Negin

Joel Negin is Head of School and Professor of Global Health at the University of Sydney School of Public Health. He focuses on health and development in sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific.


  • Hi Joel,

    Great series on the Australian Scholarship program. It’s interesting that we are still wedded to a model from the 1950’s – the Colombo Plan type scholarships, and the innovation that has occurred in the education sector in the last thirty years isn’t reflected in the current scholarship program.

    Australian universities have been offering transnational programs for over 20 years and have a highly regarded international track record in this regard. Students can study for an Australian degree anywhere in the world, either on the campus of an Australian university offshore, or through distance. Latest Australian Education International statistics show 107,000 students in this delivery stream. Utilising this lower cost option, together with sandwich courses involving a year or so at the Australian campus, to gain the benefit of an “Australian” cultural experience, could really make the scholarship more cost effective if scholarships are to be retained as a core element of the aid program. The program could also include the option for distance masters study, with a period of professional fellowship in Australia, in the way the DFID scholarship program does.

    The present structure though doesn’t encourage the universities to drive greater innovation or costs savings in delivery – even through joint degree awards with foreign universities as well, which would develop local capacity. While the joint degree option has been around awhile, there hasn’t been a real driver for uptake.

    The scholarship program is also directed to higher education, and little consideration of one of the gaps emerging, such as the middle level technical professionals.

    • Hi Louise,

      Great points. I fully agree that the delivery of scholarships hasn’t really seen much innovation. Universities are comfortable and DFAT hasn’t pushed innovation as hard as it could. Perhaps there is an opportunity now. Making sandwich courses / shorter placements in Australia / ongoing support in country part of the scholarship program and requiring Universities to innovate and partner would be challenging but might strengthen scholarships for the longer-term.

      The Colombo Plan is picking Asian Universities where Australian undergraduates can study and earn credit so some type of similar model between Australian Universities and LMIC Universities should be feasible.


  • Thanks for this interesting series of blogs. I was surprised that nowhere did you mention the possibility that the standard graduate programs available at Australian universities may not be appropriate for beneficiaries given the limited educational foundation with which many start. I’m thinking especially here of Pacific students equipped with a high-school diploma and bachelor’s degree from their home country. However innately talented these students are – and I’ve no doubt many are brilliant – I suspect they are ill-prepared to take on graduate work designed to build on a (first-rate) Australian secondary and tertiary education. If I’m right, the risk is that instead of instilling students with knowledge, skills and confidence, these scholarships instead leave students feeling like intellectual frauds and failures.

    It would be interesting to see what share of students that start their scholarships signed up to more technical courses (e.g., economics) end up switching to others (e.g., public policy, social policy, economics history), for the reasons I describe.

    One simple solution if my supposition is right: encourage students to use their scholarships to undertake a second bachelor’s degree. This is precisely what many Rhodes scholars do at Oxford so there is no inherent reason why it should be considered an inferior choice.

  • Hi Joel and others,

    I’ve followed your articles and comments with interest.
    My group at UQ International Development has been primarily involved in delivery of short courses for DFAT but there may be learning that could be applied to longer scholarships. All of our short courses include a Return to Work Plan that focuses awardees, before they depart for training, on what they expect to learn and how they might implement this upon return. A version of this might be considered in some longer term scholarships to achieve a development outcome from studies – it may not be appropriate to all studies.

    We spend a deal of time on soft skills – drafting work plans and M&E frameworks, developing and delivering presentations etc. So the ideal development scholarship should be more than technical learning but of course there would be a cost in broadening the scope.

    We deliver training both in Australia and in recipient countries. We don’t find cost savings through this approach – costs are relatively similar if you are using Australian lecturers – but we do find advantages in contextualising the delivery. Sandwich programs have been around for decades and can be a good way to reduce costs and improve context/application – not sure to what extent they are still used.

    There is much more that could be done with alumni networks and I understand that this is continually being discussed/developed at DFAT. At the moment scholarship holders naturally retain a primary allegiance to their university, rather than to DFAT. An effective alumni system is needed so that DFAT and others can rapidly identify and contact alumni for future engagement.

    There have been many ongoing connections between students and supervisors through ACIAR programs in the agriculture space. It would be great if other sectors had similar opportunities, but not all sectors get an ACIAR. Your ADRA linkage suggestion is a good one as long as alumni can be readily identified and contacted.

  • Hi Joel,

    Thanks for this great series on scholarships. I wondered whether you have looked at ‘capacity drain’ (perhaps drain isn’t the best word, maybe churn?) that might occur when the best and brightest are plucked out of organisations and governments and sent to Australia and other countries on scholarships, particularly in small island or LDC/fragile contexts? In Timor, for example, some people I talked with were exasperated that as soon as an employee of an NGO or government department became an effective performer in their job they would disappear out of the country for a few years on a scholarship and someone new would need to be trained up to fill their shoes… and then, if that person was a good performer, the cycle would repeat. Nobody wanted to deny the high performer the opportunity of an international-standard education (and you can’t stop people from changing jobs and so on) but some development people would lament that the one person who seemed to be able to ‘get things done’ or was ‘really working hard’ would suddenly disappear and then projects or policy would just stagnate as someone new tried to get up to speed. There was an abundance of different scholarships programs operating in the country too, some funded by the TL govt and many others by donors, so it would be interesting to see Australian scholarships as part of that bigger picture. Can there be such a thing as international scholarship saturation, or can you never have too many?

    And sure, people come back from scholarships, so its hard to know whether this effect was more just a short-term annoyance for expat aid worker types rather than a real issue. I doubt it is an issue in bigger countries.

    Perhaps some of the options you’ve outlined in this post, like MOOCs, could be options for keeping talented people in their jobs in-country, while also learning and expanding their horizons and skills? Different modes of delivery could also help reach underrepresented groups. For example, I knew of some young married women in Timor who wanted to apply and go on a scholarship to Australia, but they already had children and faced resistance from their families. Even with the financial support of a scholarship, there are other things that can stop people dropping everything and moving overseas for a couple of years, so it would be good to be able to offer them other high-quality options.

    • Hi Ashlee,

      Really great point about the impact of scholarships on countries with limited human capacity. The hope is that the long-term benefit outweighs the short-term loss of skill but the evidence on that has not really been compiled.

      And your point about family responsibilities and gender aspects of scholarships is critical. The qualitative phase of our research (ongoing) is very seriously looking at that angle. The choices that some women (and men) take to leave young families at home to come to Australia must be incredibly difficult. Going out of our way to support those families would be expensive but might broaden opportunities for women. It of course also suggests that in-country opportunities be opened up.


  • Hi Joel,

    Again, a really interesting series.

    Your second suggestion is something that other sponsors have certainly tried to negotiate with universities, with mixed results. And in the past, AusAID did have a ‘discount’ when there was a limited number of universities and TAFEs awardees could attend. However, given the significant amount of monitoring and reporting required by DFAT (on top of the requirements for ‘standard’ international students), it is difficult for universities to justify or afford a cut to fees. Supporting students during their studies costs money, and universities are contractually obligated to provide the best possible support to their DFAT sponsored students. Those universities with a large cohort of DFAT sponsored students may be better placed to offer discounts – but this may further disadvantage other institutions struggling to provide adequate support to their much smaller cohorts.

    It is a useful debate though, and I think DFAT are well advanced at looking at transnational and sandwich degree models – which offer some time in Australia but the majority of delivery in their home country.


  • Thanks for these posts Joel and for your thoughts about the effectiveness of scholarships. I would like to add some thoughts about how this activity can be made more effective in relation to countries from which scholarship awardees are drawn and to which they return. There are, I believe, opportunities to support returning awardees (especially those who have undertaken postgraduate study), regardless of the sector in which they find themselves, to use their studies/research (both in terms of academic content and social/personal development) as the basis for in-country networking and peer to peer development. This does not need to be high-tech or expensive. DFAT (via post) could provide funding to support a seminar series or something similar at which awardees presented their own work to colleagues and peers as the basis for discussions, knowledge sharing and professional networking. This type of activity is already happening in some places on an informal basis. For those working in the public sector (where a lot of awardees come from) this would be a really useful way of supporting the development of bureaucratic leadership, something that is much needed and often under-rated.

    • Hi Tess,

      Very good point. I definitely agree that creating a community of practice in country should be encouraged. DFAT is already doing that in places and is putting lots more effort into alumni networks than they used to. I also think that some structured model of ongoing engagement (supported by some funds) could ensure that those links between scholars as well as with Australians are maintained and deepened.

      In our qualitative work we have heard lots of goodwill towards Australia but that alumni are partnering with European or American institutions in their policy and research work.


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