Uni scholarship donations not so praiseworthy

I saw the PM on the news tonight praising Graham Tuckwell’s $50 million donation to the ANU to fund undergraduate scholarships. No doubt there are worse ways for a rich man to spend $50 million, but there are also much better ways.

Like many scholarship schemes, the Tuckwell scholarship will go to people who already have plenty of potential that is unlikely to go to waste. They will go to university anyway, find mentors anyway (one of the claimed benefits of the scheme), and make something of their lives. They are not the people who need help.

Instead, these scholarships are used for essentially wasteful positional competition between universities. The ANU will use the Tuckwell’s scholarships and the associated publicity to try to take top students away from Sydney, Melbourne and other universities that buy talented students .

If I had $50 million to spend on higher education I would put it into MOOCs. I don’t know if they will really turn out to be the next big thing in higher education. But Coursera, for example, on a capital base of US$22 million has already attracted 2.5 million enrolments. It includes many people from developing countries with little prospect otherwise of higher education. It can make so much more difference than adding to the advantages of people who have so many already.