Study in Australia or teach in the Pacific?

Secondary school students in Kiribati (DFAT Flickr CC by 2.0)

The Australian Government, through its aid program, has introduced a new Pacific Secondary School Scholarships Program (PSSSP). The scholarship is marketed as ‘a prestigious Australian Government financial award’ that will provide an opportunity for the recipients to earn an international education at an Australian secondary school, thereby gaining ‘the necessary academic and leadership skills to pursue further education, training or employment pathways upon return to their home country or elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region’.

In return, the Australian Government is hoping to ‘deepen education links between Australia and the Pacific’ where the recipients of the scholarship will ‘develop lifelong connections with Australia and their fellow Pacific alumni’. These are ambitious goals, progress on which will probably be tracked as the program is rolled out.

Residents of Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu between the ages of 15 and 17 enrolled in school are eligible for the scholarship. Applications close on 1 March, and scholarships are to be awarded following assessment on the advertised selection criteria.

The number of scholarships to be awarded through this four-year, $66 million program is unclear. It is, however, likely to involve hundreds of students, each one costing Australian taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year. Under the quantum of the initial announcement and assuming states and schools are not absorbing any costs, we are looking at $82,000 per student if 200 scholarships are awarded per year or $33,000 if 500 (many times what a teacher earns in Fiji). By contrast, the Schooling Resource Standard base funding for Australian secondary students in 2020 is $14,761 per student. This aid, through the PSSSP, will likely provide additional income to host schools, enrich the cultural composition of the local community, and possibly link host families to their counterparts in the Pacific.

The recipients selected on the advertised criteria are likely to gain an international education funded by Australian taxpayers. Whether this will deepen the links between Australia and the Pacific or lead them to pursue higher education, with a view to returning home to take up leadership positions, remains to be seen. If indeed the case, then lifelong links to Australia by the educated elite in the Pacific are possible.

The question we ask is whether this is the best route to achieving the stated goals of these scholarships. Let’s focus on three specific issues.

1. Will Australia get new/additional students from the PSSSP?

A trickle of Pacific islanders has historically come to Australia and New Zealand for tertiary studies, usually on scholarships provided by the source or host nation. Those who come to pursue secondary education initially did so also on scholarships, but the approximately 6,000 Pacific island children currently studying in Australia are now nearly exclusively funded privately – mostly by their well-to-do parents. The question for the PSSSP is whether it will lead to a noticeable net increase in the number of places in secondary schools that will accrue to Pacific islanders. If a hundred places, as an example, are offered under the PSSSP, then would this lead to an additional 100 students from the Pacific islands in secondary schools in Australia? Yes, but only if none of those likely to come privately do not jump on PSSSP. At worst, if all the PSSSP places are taken up by the existing privately funded students, then the net gain to PSSSP would be zilch. Although the program says it will give preference to students from rural areas, an ‘independent, merit-based selection process’ will likely favour the rich and, with weak income and poverty measurement across the region, effective means testing or targeting is unlikely. The program could thus generate little additionality, subsidise the well-off, and exacerbate inequality.

2. What will the PSSSP cost?

The cost of the PSSSP can be measured in two ways. First, the financial cost of tuition, accommodation, airfares, and other program expenses for the recipient, likely tens of thousands of dollars each year. Second, the aggregate opportunity cost. As the aid budget is fixed in dollar terms, PSSSP must draw funds from other programs. We need to know what the PSSSP has displaced and the cost of displacement to assess the PSSSP’s value for money.

3. What are the non-pecuniary costs of the PSSSP?

PSSSP, if significant in size and effective in selecting the best and the brightest of the Pacific, will deplete local schools of their cream. This could adversely affect the performance of students left behind and the morale of local teachers. Placing children as young as 15 into a foreign country among strangers may also not be in the best interest of the child or their parents.

Teach for the Pacific as an alternative

We propose an alternative in the form of a ‘Teach for the Pacific’ initiative, not dissimilar to Teach for Australia. ‘Teach for the Pacific’ could be run in tandem with the PSSSP with a view to testing the efficacy of the two programs in delivering the Australian Government’s stated goals.

While this is not the place for spelling out the full details of ‘Teach for the Pacific’, let us highlight just five key features.

(i) The program would be a two-way exchange for the best teachers across the Pacific to teach abroad for three years. Pacific islander teaching graduates (possibly through Australia Awards) could apply for placement in Australian schools, and recent Australian teaching graduates and experienced (and retired) teachers could apply for placement in the Pacific. These two-way flows are likely to achieve the stated goals of the PSSSP, particularly strengthening leadership skills (with a view to training and mentoring future principals) and improving educational outcomes for more students. A proportionally higher flow to the region could alleviate any ‘brain drain’ concerns.

(ii) Recruits would be selected on merit and required to return home for a period equal to their residence abroad, as is standard with other Australian scholarships.

(iii) Remuneration would be that of a local teacher, funded from the aid budget.

(iv) Benchmarks would be created with respect to student learning, placement, and the set goals of the PSSSP, to monitor progress over the life of the program and beyond.

(v) Schools would be randomly assigned into ‘Teach for the Pacific’, PSSSP, and neither (i.e. the control group) to allow for evaluation of the programs.

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Satish Chand

Satish Chand is Professor of Finance in the School of Business at the University of New South Wales, based at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, and an Adjunct Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

Ryan Edwards

Ryan Edwards is Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy. He leads Pacific migration research under the Pacific Research Program at the ANU.


  • Teach for the Pacific is an attractive idea. I absolutely support the proposal to do randomised control trials to look at the impact of the different programs (though I accept the PSSP impact would probably be easier to measure). Without dismissing the value of qualitative evaluation, Australian development assistance would benefit from having more robust cost-benefit studies on which to base funding decisions.

  • Good article – old timers will know this works by simply looking at history. The number of former leaders who all came from the same schools which we all know in the Pacific. However, there were some design failures back then (capture by political elites) which will need to be avoided.

    A good case study would be the old Aotearoa Scholarships that were abruptly halted by the NZ Government about 15 years ago I think. They lost a lot of traction after that, which was slightly recovered by the Seasonal Worker Programme.

    In todays geopolitical environment where some Asian countries are seen as more trustworthy such interventions have to be part of the long-term solution to the problem of addressing the relationship between Australia and the Pacific. Alas like all long-term interventions in Education the results will not be known for decades.

  • Thank you Drs Statish and Edwards for bringing up this on the social media platform. As alluded by Michael with the Martyrs experience, this is not a new arrangement for Papua New Guinea with Australia. The Secondary Scholarships existed before in the 1990s and ceased in the late 1990s simply because taking PNG’s best students away from Grade 10 only to return to PNG after 3 years. PNG’s universities were not able to accept them because of the wrong subjects combination and most of the students did not get good grades to qualify for them to enter the universities back home, although, only a handful of them did find their way in.
    Teachers exchange program will benefit most of our teachers in the secondary and national high schools in terms of enriching their knowledge and will learn and re-learn new innovations into teaching. Most parents of best performing students will not allow their child to be taken away to study matriculation abroad and return home. We have to go beyond matriculation and allow them to sit for the Australian Examinations and enter into Australian universities to complete the scholarships. This will require a 6 to 7 year scholarship for one child. The costs will be very high but this is the way forward. This concept is not new for PNG. It was there before. We have to look into better ways to select our best students and educate them in Australia. I don’t see sustainability of taking the best performing students in PNG to Australia and sending them home after 3 years or 2 years. Thank you.

  • The PSSSP may have some negative impacts in terms of removing high-performing students from local schools and from their families, and it may be difficult to ensure that scholarships are indeed awarded on merit. However, the suggestion to replace this with a ‘Teach for the Pacific’ program is highly problematic.
    Firstly, it would be enormously difficult to identify Pacific teachers with the relevant qualifications and experience to teach in Australian schools, particularly from Pacific countries with ‘least developed’ status.
    Secondly, if those teachers could be identified, removing them from their home positions means removing the people who are best placed not only to teach students effectively, but to cooperate with and mentor other local teachers. Putting an Australian teacher in their place means inserting someone with no familiarity with the local curriculum, school culture, community language (and usually second language of the school), or students into a school and expecting them to work miracles. Meanwhile, Pacific teachers would be expected to return home and apply everything they’ve been doing in a completely different teaching context to their home context, with all its specific challenges and constraints.
    It’s well-documented in the literature that in-service teacher education works best in-situ. Better solutions would be 1. to place Australian teachers alongside local Pacific teachers to co-teach and mentor them within their own contexts and 2. to provide scholarships for pre-service teachers to study Education in Australia before returning home to begin their service, most likely with a supplementary teacher-education program at home to familiarise them with local policies, curricula and approaches.

    • Good points Angela – thanks! On difficulty in picking good teachers from some countries, an option is to pick fresh graduates with teacher training (from USP or Australia) for work experience & mentoring in Australia before being posted to schools at home (i.e. in the islands). And, similarly partnering an Australian teacher with a local counterpart in-situ has merit as both will learn from each other – we do canvass this option in the blog. Finally, let us put our prejudices aside and assess objectively what works, the concluding point of the blog. Ryan and I are proposing a race between PSSSP and ‘Teach for the Pacific’ for the aid dollar: the winner will be the children of the islands and the Australian taxpayer!

      • Thanks for the reply, Satish. I wonder how you would measure and compare the impacts of the two programs given their very different designs and purposes. PSSSP would be likely to have a very strong impact on participating student learning outcomes and should also build ongoing relationships, the impacts of which are hard to measure in the short term, but would not affect teacher quality, whereas (trainee) teacher exchange and/or in-service teacher mentoring – if done well – should affect teacher quality and may also improve aspects of school management and institutional culture, but it may be hard to measure direct and immediate impacts on student learning outcomes, especially given the complexity of school contexts and all of the variables involved, and given issues around the validity of testing tools. I think some nuanced qualitative research combined with a quantitative analysis would be valuable.

        • Design of the evaluation program is critical for an objective assessment – and yes, it will require careful thought. This isn’t the place to spell out the details of the evaluation method, but three necessary conditions for the above would include: (i) integration of the goals of the program at a higher level (e.g. deepened educational links with Australia through education of children funded with Australian aid); (ii) benchmarks created on measures of success for on-going monitoring before the rollout of the policy interventions; and, (iii) random assignment of treatment and control schools. Happy to invest in the design of such a program as ‘proof of concept’ if there is willingness for a trial.

        • That, if we are to assume that all schools across Australia fall under one category, to apply the qualitative and quantitative method you are proposing to achieve a proposed objective assessment Angela. It should not be the primary issue. We are dealing with human beings here. You can not achieve a 100 percent outcome if that plus higher academic is to define social policy between neighboring islands. This is the 21st century, thought we’d buried the white policy. An institutionalized tool applied to restrict shared learning across the board to both recipients.
          Unfortunately we will never bridge the gap nor give a fair go to all.

          • Tamoi, I think you may have misinterpreted my comments. I was not proposing any kind of ‘objective assessment’. In fact, I am a language teacher, teacher-trainer and trainer-trainer working in Kiribati and Vanuatu. I work within a very different paradigm from the economics paradigm which informs the proposed study by Drs Chand and Edwards. I don’t think random sampling is appropriate here because no two schools are equivalent and the differences are especially pronounced when we are comparing, for example, central and outer islands or urban and rural schools in Pacific Island states. In my opinion, there are also very significant issues with the validity of the summative testing tools which are currently in use in the Pacific and with how we can measure the broad range of impacts which effective teaching can have, not only on skills and knowledge but on attitudes. Yes, we are dealing with human beings and that is why I would use quantitative analysis very carefully indeed and combine it with some in-depth and nuanced qualitative investigation into the effects and impacts of any program. I think these programs and their evaluations need to be designed by a range of experts collaboratively, including educators.

  • This seems a very worthwhile suggestion. For so long as there is no more money in the aid program we need to concentrate on maximising the benefit of what we spend.

  • Hi Statish & Ryan, the idea you propose may be the better alternative. Exchanging teachers, and training teachers in Australia.

    At present, PNG’s National High Schools (Four schools) takes the cream of PNG’s Grade 10 students after exams to continue to grades 11-12. Many of these students come from rural areas. This leaves the second best to continue studying at their respective high schools/secondary schools. PSSSP will most likely take students who would have come to these National High Schools, which means second best will continue at National High schools, leaving the third best for the schools providing students for PSSSP and National High Schools of PNG.

    Martyrs Secondary School in Oro Province has similar arrangements with sister school in Melbourne, Melbourne Grammar, where two of the best Grade 10 students from Martyrs are sent to Melbourne. They repeat year 10, and proceed to year 11 and 12. However they are required to return to PNG as the scholarship only covers secondary schooling years. Most of these students had problems getting into PNG universities because selections for tertiary institutions in PNG are concluded before results of these students studying in Australia are ready. Unless students studying under PSSSP all continue on to Australian universities, they will face the same problems as those experienced by Martyrs Secondary students.

    Taking away the best students from rural areas is clearly not in PNG’s best interest. Training PNG (and the Pacific) teachers, and exchanging high school teachers benefits many students. PSSP only benefits a select few.

    But you have to look at the goal of Australian government. PSSSP is not necessarily aimed at improving the Pacific’s high schools, its aimed at maintaining a positive outlook towards Australia (possibly part of countering Chinese).

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