Like my colleagues whose work has featured in this series of Postcards from Papua New Guinea, I was privileged to travel to PNG in September this year, and to be in Port Moresby as the nation celebrated 44 years of independence from Australia.
The trip offered me an amazing insight into my own area of research, specifically development scholarships. Much of my working and research life has been dedicated to tertiary scholarships – awards given to support students from developing countries into higher education. During these years of work and study, I have always felt that scholarships have been given a whole lot of leeway. Politicians love them because they provide great photo opportunities (not as good as a bridge, but pretty good). Diplomats love them because they are convenient and quantifiable bargaining chips, Australia’s efforts to get a seat on the UN Security Council is a useful example of this.
Given how much aid is now evaluated and measured to within an inch of its existence, I’ve always felt scholarships have been able to multiply and expand with less evidence of positive outcomes than other “investments” like basic education and infrastructure. There are significant assumptions about the positive outcomes of higher education scholarships, and while individual outcomes are more easily demonstrated, community or societal changes are more difficult to identify.
Being in Port Moresby, and meeting many people working within higher education and the public service provided amazing insight into why diplomats, politicians and policymakers might so easily make those assumptions. Nearly every second person we met was an alumnus of an Australian scholarship program. By one of our last engagements – admittedly a cocktail party at the Australian High Commission celebrating the return of the most recent cohort of Australia Awards scholars – I was able to identify the scheme the Vice Chancellor of the University of PNG studied under by only the year of study he told me (what a party trick!).
These are the people that diplomats, politicians and policymakers most often encounter when they come to PNG, or other developing countries. Finding a whole cohort of people who studied in Australia in high profile and influential roles – well, that equals success, does it not? I wondered about what happened to the people who don’t talk about their experience because it wasn’t great, or the experience has proved more of a burden? Like the alumni I met who has spent nearly a decade frustrated and unfulfilled after his return from Australia before finally being able to find a role that uses the skills and knowledge he gained while on scholarship.
While there is more in-depth research going into scholarship outcomes, and an excellent oral history collection. However, finding what correlations can be drawn between the study experience and life outcomes is difficult and longterm work. And this is the kind of work that scholarship funders have not been good at resourcing.
Perhaps now I will be a little less judgemental of those policymakers and politicians who uncritically sing the praises of scholarships, because if amazing alumni is whom you’re meeting, why wouldn’t you believe the program is an amazing success?