Is education foreign aid?

Children in Laos holding new books received from Australian foreign aid. Photo Lucy Slade.
Academics say the Coalition's boost to Australian awards is an inefficient use of scarce aid funds but universities think they teach students about Australian culture, writes Lucy Slade.

Foreign Aid should be spent overseas not on Australian scholarships, says a development studies academic.

Dr Susanne Schmeidl, an expert in economic development policy at the University of New South Wales, disagrees with the 2016 budget increase in Australia awards scholarship funding because she thinks the money is better spent in local overseas areas.

Schmeidl said, “I think more money should be spent locally because of the costs involved with bringing students to Australia.

“In the end I think you would reach more people in local areas because scholarships are expensive and we know Australia’s cost of living is much higher.

But Jamie Low, a member of the international sponsorship team at RMIT, said, “students definitely get a lot out of the program.

“The whole objective for them to be here is not just to get an education.

“It is also to learn, experience and understand the (Australian) culture and hopefully take it back with them.

“The Australia scholarship is a development program and gives us a way to help overseas students.”

But Schmeidl said, “Australian universities could work with local universities to send teachers over for a semester or offer dual online courses to provide the quality assistance.”

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) website, Australia will spend $692 million on the Australian Award scholarships, more than double last year’s total of $360 million.

Schmeidl suggests the increase in funding is because “the New Colombo Australian Award plan is [Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade] Julie Bishop’s flagship.”

DFAT says the new Colombo plan “encourages a two-way flow of students” between Australia and Indonesia.

“I think in taking a minimalistic approach and focusing on the Asia-Pacific makes sense because they (the government) make the argument Europe is much stronger then Asia”, Schmeidl said.

But Low was unaware the funding had been increased because “the universities do not receive the funding themselves”.

“I hope the program does get more funding. A lot of success stories have come out of the program, not just from RMIT but the program as a whole,” she said.

Schmeidl also does not think girls’ education should be prioritised over boys.

“I think it is always good that you fill a gap but in some countries you also need to educate boys particularly in countries’ where there is a disparity between stuff.

“I think, yes, it is important but you know if you go into a village in Sudan and you only do girls education that never bodes well. So you need to do both.”

Australia’s foreign aid has been cut by $11.3 billion in the 2016-17 budget, to the lowest it has ever been, despite the $333 million increase to the Australia Awards scholarship program.

Schmeidl referred to the budget cuts as “problematic” because “Australia is spending a lot of money on refugee detention.

“A lot of people in these countries became refugees because of conflict and livelihood so Australia should step up assistance in other areas.”