Could a new spin on an old bursary bring benefits for Australia and its neighbours?
Scholarships are an intriguing mix of philanthropy and education, sprinkled with a light dose of social engineering.
In general terms, well-meaning individuals or organisations establish scholarships or bursaries to fund the education of a particular type or class of people.
There are plenty of them around but the one that caught my attention is the Rhodes Scholarship, established by the southern African entrepreneur Cecil John Rhodes as an international postgraduate award for selected foreign students to study at the University of Oxford.
Scholarships are awarded each year to dozens of academic achievers across a numerous Commonwealth countries, as well as Germany and the US. Western Australia has had 113 since 1904.
For several years I’ve had a list of WA scholars in a file in my office. It was rediscovered during a regular cleanup the other day, coinciding with news that 1980 Canadian Rhodes scholar John McCall MacBain and his wife Marcy had donated £75 million into the scholarship trust to reinvigorate the program and expand its reach.
Newly minted Prime Minister Tony Abbott was also a Rhodes Scholar.
I am big fan of the idea of the Rhodes Scholarship, although it is unclear whether the reasons it was established in the early 1900s – to help educate the very best of youth emerging from the British colonies – are relevant today.
The first nine recipients in WA went straight from school to Oxford because the state did not have a university.
From 1913, 98 of the winners have attended the University of Western Australia, which was, for a long time, the state’s only tertiary institution.
The Rhodes Scholarship was originally only for men. The first WA woman to win was Carol Jay, a Tuart Hill High School and UWA graduate, in 1977. Ms Jay is more elusive than most of winners of her era and I can’t tell you what she went on to do.
She was not just unusual for being a woman. Ms Jay is also from a general state school. Most of the winners in WA come from a handful of private boys schools or Perth Modern specialist government school. In the early days of the scholarship it appears that Guildford Grammar almost had a mortgage on the award – 15 winners, 11 of which were before World War II.
You can bet many of these were country boys, adding to the 12 recipients over the years who attended high school in regional areas.
Perth Modern also had 14, although its track record will have been affected by a few recent decades when it was not the elite state school it had been established as (and to which it has returned).
Perth Modern was also the place where some of our highest profile Rhodes Scholars started their academic lives. Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, former Liberal federal attorney-general Daryl Williams, and former National politician and ex-federal Treasury secretary John Stone all completed high school there in the 1950s and 1960s.
That period also included other high-profile judicial figures, former chief justice of the WA Supreme Court David Malcolm and one of his colleagues, Geoffrey Kennedy, who was not only a judge but also vice-chancellor of UWA.
The next two decades offered a similar flavour in terms of high-profile politicians including former federal Labor leader Kim Beazley and former Labor state premier Geoff Gallop. There was also a business flavour in the likes of Sir Rod Eddington, who ran British Airways before returning to Australia, and Mike Fitzpatrick, a famous VFL footballer who started his own hugely successful funds management business, Hastings. Both remain in public life.
Another star business performer is Mike Rennie, McKinsey’s managing partner in Australia, although much of the modern inclination focuses on academics and medical researchers who, while potentially well known in their fields, are little recognised to the wider public.
Many of these academics call a foreign country home.
Which brings me back to the purpose of the scholarship. If the Rhodes Scholarship was an early version of the Colombo plan – sending people from educationally deprived regions to be up-skilled so they may take this experience home – then it is past its use-by date.
While the federal government is in the process of pushing a reverse Colombo plan and sending Australian students to neighbouring countries to study, perhaps a Rhodes Scholarship of sorts that picks the best and brightest from universities in neighbouring countries and brings them here is a better way to develop regional human capital and improve international relations.