Does the award of a Chevening Scholarship to Georgina Downer, daughter of the Foreign Minister and a third class honours graduate, signal the end of the rule of merit in Australian universities? The recent revelations by Crikey made me think of my own undergraduate years, and the opportunities I was given because Robert Menzies believed in an education system based on merit.

Scholarship holders were a significant group in the years before Gough Whitlam abolished fees and opened education to all who matriculated. Our progress to university had been fuelled in part by the decision of the Menzies Government (endorsed by Holt and Gorton) to expand Australia’s educational base.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Whenever I have to describe the impact of culture shock I get a mental image of my first week at the University of Sydney in 1968. My home was in Hurstville, less than fifteen kilometres away, but it might as well have been on another planet. The overwhelming majority of my fellow students appeared to be from the rich northern suburb of Killara, except for those who hailed from mega-rich Mosman. I knew I looked gauche in clothes that were either home-made or from Woolworths. I felt inferior to those girls in designer dresses and those boys who spent weekends down at the snowfields.

Because I was naïve and eighteen I assumed that everyone else was, like me, on a scholarship. I had no idea that many of my fellow students in Fine Arts had parents who paid fees.

It took me considerable time to realise that students who could fly to Adelaide for the festival, and spend their long vacation in Europe instead of working the night shift at the Kodak factory, were secretly intimidated by those of us who were at university without money. They were especially threatened by students who lived in the ‘wrong’ suburbs, and who had not attended well-established schools.

In the post-war years new universities opened all over the country and old universities expanded. The state governments did their bit by creating scholarships so that the children of the Baby Boom would have qualified high school teachers. It was these teachers who made the difference, so that although it was overwhelming and some of the fellow students were intimidating, most scholarship students came to university with a sense of entitlement. At my school, Kingsgrove North, most of the teachers were young. They came from similar cultural backgrounds to their students: working class kids who had achieved a career through education. Most had Bachelor’s degrees from Sydney University, but some were two-year trained, finishing university at night.

Our English master, the actor Don Reid, encouraged the junior teachers and persuaded them to read their seminar papers to HSC English students. Many of these teachers did not stay in the system long. After working off their bond to the education department, they moved on to careers in industry, but the great gift they gave was to show that education was possible and that we were entitled to it. Many of my fellow students became teachers, but others became lawyers, including John McIntyre, the current president of the NSW Law Society.

Once we reached university, despite not being briefed on how to work the system or having parents who could help us with essays, scholarship holders tended to flourish. Universities have at their core a celebration of merit. The mediocre may be tolerated, but good students are usually cherished. Rewarding scholarship has been the basis of university education since medieval times.

I soon noticed that the exquisitely dressed fashion plates, who would turn up to classes wearing the latest style from Vogue, were taking a decidedly leisurely approach to their studies. Some dropped out of university altogether. None of them made it to the honours seminar. Honours degrees and their accompanying scholarships were handed out on merit. The same pattern was repeated in other disciplines across Sydney University and in all universities throughout Australia.

Academic life has become more competitive, even as universities lose their lustre. In the 1970s it was sometimes possible to get an APA (Australian Postgraduate Award) with an Honours Class II (Division 1). Now it is almost always Class I. For the ambitious students, undergraduate degrees lead on to postgraduate work in Europe or America, and there are scholarships for this. Some scholarships ask for other qualities, including sporting prowess, and ‘qualities of character as well as of intellect’. Nevertheless the expectation with all these prestigious awards is that successful applicants are near the top of their class.

As Crikey revealed, the world has changed.

Ms Georgina Downer was awarded a Chevening scholarship in order to study at the London School of Economics. A trawl of the web reveals that the Chevening scholarships are ‘intended for outstanding graduates and young professionals with the potential to rise to senior positions in the professions or in the public or private sector and be in a position to help maintain and improve Australian-British understanding’. There is no doubt that Ms Downer can fulfil these conditions. Her father is the Australian Foreign Minister and the family has long standing Anglo-Australian connections. There is, however, an academic problem: her Law degree is Honours Class III. Some universities do not award thirds. They can be seen as a bit of a backhanded compliment, an indication that the student understands the value of a social life. In recent years most Chevening scholarship holders have held first class honours.

Crikey‘s exposure of Ms Downer’s surprising success led first to attacks on the site for being mean to a political bystander, but when the mediocrity of her academic record was revealed, unsuccessful applicants commented on the implications with some passion (click here to read). What is curious is that while some mainstream Australian media carried news of the attack on Ms Downer, none of them gave her academic record. The story was buried.

Sometimes it is the small events that act as a signal that times have changed. The stratification of the school system and reintroduction of fees into universities, all follow a pattern. When well-connected, mediocre students are awarded scholarships, while quality students go without, we are in full retreat from any pretence to equity.

It is possible to begin to level the playing field by supporting the Smith Family’s Learning for Life program ( The Smith Family helps disadvantaged children from the first years of infant school, all the way to the completion of a first university degree. Most universities have established scholarship funds to support disadvantaged students. Donations to these funds are tax deductible.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.