The Endeavour awards, an elite program for student mobility, will be cut by almost 5 per cent, with 150 fewer scholarships given next year.
The budget measure, saving $10 million across four years, comes after a government advisory council suggested more scholarships in the spirit of the Colombo Plan could improve Australia’s image. The government said it would try to quarantine Asia scholarships from the cuts. Last year there were 1242 Endeavour awards to and from Asia while Europe accounted for 977 and the Americas 853.
“We will try to preserve scholarships to and from Asia — during the Asian century, the focus on Asia should be maintained,” said a spokesman for the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. However, he said there were no quotas for any country because the awards were competitive and based on merit.
There were no budget cuts to the AusAID development scholarships that, together with the Endeavour scholarships, were relaunched as the Australia Awards last year. This was the program seized on last month by an advisory council chaired by businessman Michael Chaney and tasked with helping the government devise a strategy for international education.
A bigger Australia Awards program could help “positively change people’s perceptions of Australia around the world and remind Australians of the true value and responsibility of playing their part in welcoming international scholars and their families,” the council advised.
Mr Chaney, chancellor of the University of Western Australia and National Australia Bank chairman, acknowledged the “big challenge” the government faced in returning the budget to surplus and did not believe debate about an expanded Australia Awards had been rendered pointless by the cut.
“Anything we recommend will be the subject of future budgets and it may be that expenditures are a little less constrained then,” he said. In a separate cut, the government will save $25m across four years by denying commonwealth-supported places and HECS and FEE-HELP loans to Australians enrolled at a domestic campus but living overseas.
This would limit funding to students “more likely to remain in Australia and contribute to Australia’s workforce and economy following graduation”, the budget papers say.
Higher education online has shown rapid growth and some of this is driven by expatriate Australians. Open Universities Australia, which has enjoyed 20 per cent year-on-year growth, estimates that one in 40 of its 50,000 students are expats. About 70 per cent of its students use FEE-HELP loans.
“Most of our students live overseas for relatively short periods of time and intend to return to Australia,” OUA chief executive Paul Wappett said. He said the cut was “bad policy” for these students who would return to pay back their loans and contribute to the economy. A better policy would be to pursue education debts already incurred by permanent expats, he said.
Curtin University, another rising online operator, had 27 expat students with an overseas address and 4770 students with residential addresses both here and overseas. The University of New England had 156 Australian students whose home and term addresses were overseas.
A DIISRT spokesman said providers would not be allowed to offer commonwealth places or access to the federal loan system if they expected “the student will not undertake in Australia any units of study contributing to a course of study. This is likely to be the case if a person has both an overseas home and overseas semester address when applying for enrolment in a higher education course,” he said.