Smoke Signal: Whitehouse Scholarship – A matter of ethics

Any suggestion that the media controversy regarding Frances Abbott’s Whitehouse scholarship is a distraction from “real” issues concerning the Australian public is not only wrong, but is also an attempt to sidestep important questions regarding ethics and conflicts of interest in Australian politics.

The controversy surrounding this issue is particularly pertinent considering the disturbing, ongoing revelations about senior figures in the Liberal Party uncovered by the corruption watchdog ICAC in recent months. Amongst other resignations, we have had Barry O’Farrell step down as NSW Premier for receiving a $3000 bottle of wine.

So, it is hard to understand why the granting of a second-ever, “very rare” scholarship worth $60,000 to the daughter of a prominent politician isn’t worth questioning. The Whitehouse chair Les Taylor has donated more than $12,000 to the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. Importantly, his organisation stands to benefit from the Federal government’s changes to higher education that will see far greater public funding allocated to private colleges.

More broadly this issue highlights the Abbott government ministers ideological attacks on public higher education providers in Australia. The government is determined to callously hike up the debt of the majority of Australian students who are not lucky enough to be gifted a massively discounted education because of their family’s connections. The biggest burden of the cuts, including massive fee increases, and regressive changes to the HECS repayment system, will fall on low-income graduates as well as working women who take time off to have children.

The Whitehouse scholarship story is not simply an example of media sensationalism. Drawing attention to this matter is not a character-assassination on Frances Abbott or suggesting that she is untalented. We have seen she had a distinction average, no doubt an impressive achievement. Yet so do many students, the majority of whom do not have a family wealthy enough to pay the $60,000 fees imposed by private colleges like Whitehouse, let alone a father whose connections might win an exclusive scholarship into such a course.

Personal attacks on the family members of anybody – including politicians – are unfair. This does not discount the astounding inequity of awarding nepotistic scholarships to an elite few, while most Australian students face exorbitant fee increases and a push to fund expensive private colleges at the direct expense of our public universities.

Nor does it discount the desperate need for greater transparency surrounding the actions of lobbyists in Australian political life.

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