Earlier this year, Craccum ran ‘Rags to Rags, Riches to Riches: the University of Auckland’s Unfair Scholarship programme’, an article which examined how the university’s scholarship funding was divided between declies. More than a month after Craccum first asked the university for comment, Stuart McCutcheon responds.
The article (using data obtained under the Official Information Act) revealed that the university’s scholarship programme disproportionately benefitted students from wealthier backgrounds. The university granted students living in the wealthiest 10% of neighbourhoods around $1,250,000 worth of scholarship funding in 2018. In the same year, those living in the poorest 10% received around $250,000. The article also revealed that scholarships like the university’s Top Achiever award – which, according to the scholarship’s official assessment criteria, is supposed to take into account students ‘personal factors’ as well as their academic record – disproportionately benefited students from wealthier communities. Whilst 55 Top Achiever awards were given to schools in the wealthiest 10% of communities, none were given to colleges situated in the poorest 10%.
When asked whether he thought the scholarships system favoured students from wealthier backgrounds, Stuart McCutcheon told Craccum “if you took the scholarships system alone and didn’t consider anything else, you might come to that view”. However, he believes critics need to “look at the total support we provide to students”.
McCutcheon says that – although it may not have an equitable scholarships programme – the university invests in a broad range of generalised projects which aim to help students in low-decile communities receive a better standard of education in high school and beyond. McCutcheon believes these programmes must be taken into account when considering whether the university provides ample opportunities for all students. “If you look at the full package of what we do it is much more balanced than simply a focus on scholarships would reflect,” he says.
This “full package” of initiatives includes projects like StarPath (a ten-year research project “which looked at ‘why is it that students of ability from underrepresented schools don’t get here?’”), first-in-family grants for students, and STEM Online (an initiative which has seen the university put “free-to-air” high-school learning materials online). McCutcheon says he does not have any statistics evaluating the efficacy of STEM Online (as the initiative is so new), but “something like 1000 students out of … 60 or 70 schools” have benefitted from it.
McCutcheon says these initiatives are more beneficial to low-decile communities than providing “token” scholarships to disadvantaged students “which wouldn’t get taken up” by students who have no interest in gaining a tertiary education. As a result, McCutcheon says he does not plan to reform or change the university’s scholarships programme.
“It is absolutely the case that our scholarships are not simply about equal opportunities,” McCutcheon says. However, the university makes up for this by investing in pro-active programmes designed to give students a better education before they arrive at university. “When they get here they’ll have access to the same set of scholarships and support as everybody else,” he says, “But again, giving a student a scholarship to go to med school when they’re not going to pass year 11 maths is a complete waste of time”.
McCutcheon says up-and-coming initiatives include the development of a new campus in South Auckland, and the launch of a new foundation which will see Auckland University “working with [four South Auckland] schools to identify the students from year 10 to year 13… who have the ability to go on to university and succeed but who without their help won’t do so”. According to McCutcheon, “a couple of hundred thousand university dollars” have been invested in these initiatives.
McCutcheon believes granting scholarships to students from low-decile communities – many of whom he believes are not ready to attend university – would do more harm than good. “If you come here and fail, it will be a financial cost to you. You will have to pay your fees for the paper you failed, you will have to pay for your resit. You’ll take longer to get through university. People don’t think about that opportunity cost,” McCutcheon told Craccum. “[So] a scholarship to come to a university that you probably won’t get to come to is not a good investment for anybody”.
“What we think of is not just the scholarship programme, we think about the whole package and how that package relates to the needs of particular students,” McCutcheon told Craccum, “For example, when Maori and Pacific students come into the university they have the Tuākana programme which helps support their particular cultural needs. This helps them be successful”.
According to the university’s website, the Tuākana programme offers Maori and Pacific students “small-group learning, whakawhanaungatanga, wānanga, fonotaga, face-to-face meetings and workshops” to help “connect Māori and Pacific students with senior Māori and Pacific students (tuākana), academic teaching staff, and key people across the university”. In McCutcheon’s view, although these programmes “don’t necessarily do it by giving people a cheque in the form of a scholarship”, they are still “trying to get our students to the point where they are going off into the workforce” and should be considered when debating the university’s scholarship programme.
Because McCutcheon’s response came so close to the time of publication (and no hard figures were given in the conversation), Craccum has been unable to obtain information on how much has been spent on any of the initiatives mentioned, or on how successful they have been. Craccum plans to investigate these further in the future.