The Whitehouse Institute of Design – the private Sydney college at the centre of a growing storm around a secret $60,000 scholarship awarded to the daughter of the Australian Prime Minister – gave away a small Indigenous scholarship for a course that never ran.
The scholarship, worth less than one-tenth of the value of the secret scholarship provided to Frances Abbott, was presented at a gala ceremony held in December last year, to celebrate Whitehouse’s 25th birthday.
Worth $4,400, it was awarded to a young Aboriginal designer from the Northern Territory, for a Certificate III in Design Fundamentals. The award was profiled by industry bible Vogue Australia.
But the scholarship – scheduled to start in January this year – never commenced because the Design Fundamentals course failed to attract sufficient student enrolments.
A Whitehouse insider told New Matilda it was the fifth straight unsuccessful attempt to launch the Vocational Education and Training (VET) course.
The two-day gala event – sponsored by major international brands including Emirates – was attended by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his family, and also hosted some of the heavy weights of the fashion industry.
The scholarship was presented by prominent Aboriginal model, Samantha Harris. There is no assertion from New Matilda that Ms Harris had any knowledge the course was unlikely to run.
In response, Whitehouse has insisted the scholarship was genuine, and claimed the student has recently commenced study at Whitehouse, enrolling in alternative courses to the same value.
However, Whitehouse has ignored repeated questions about why the student only commenced her studies six months after the scholarship should have begun, and why it occurred only after New Matilda began making inquiries about the issue.
Whitehouse officials refused to be interviewed for this story, and declined repeated requests to provide details on when Whitehouse first offered alternative studies to the scholarship winner. Instead a written statement was issued last week through public relations firm Res Republica.
The statement read: “Whitehouse was a sponsor of Australian Indigenous Fashion Week in April 2014.
“The Institute provided its Sydney Campus to many Indigenous fashion designers to use as a studio and their HQ in preparation for Australian Indigenous Fashion Week, and as part of our involvement in this event one scholarship for a new Whitehouse Institute course was awarded to a talented young designer.
“Enrolment for that course was lower than expected so it has yet to commence, however Whitehouse was committed to providing the student concerned with the scholarship support offered to her and she has taken up an equivalent alternative. Her studies are already underway.
“Any suggestion that the scholarship offer was not legitimate or that the young designer concerned has not had the opportunity to avail herself of a scholarship at Whitehouse is unfounded and untrue.”
On further questioning, Whitehouse conceded the student commenced her studies in June, which was after the story about Frances Abbott broke and New Matilda began making inquiries.
But a further statement from Res Publica described as “simply ludicrous” any suggestion the start date of the student’s enrolment was related to any “inquiry from New Matilda”.
A Whitehouse insider told New Matilda that the scholarship was offered in order to help attract “a big name” – such as Samantha Harris – to Whitehouse’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
The insider said the Design Fundamentals course was the second cheapest course offered by Whitehouse, although the college knew there was a strong chance the course would not run, because four previous attempts to start it had failed.
New Matilda unsuccessfully sought comment from the scholarship winner shortly after the details of Frances Abbott’s secret scholarship were publicly revealed in May.
Whitehouse’s 25th anniversary gala celebrations has already been the subject of several New Matilda stories.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott his wife attended the event, and were wined and dined in an exclusive ‘VIP function’ separate from hundreds of attendees.
Two cases of Dom Perignon champagne were provided for the private function, which was limited to around two dozen people.
Whitehouse has strongly denied ever lobbying the Prime Minister about higher education reform, although hundreds of people at the gala event witnessed college owner Leanne Whitehouse complain from the stage to Prime Minister Abbott about the red tape and costs associated with running private colleges.
Ms Whitehouse described her comments to the Prime Minister as “teasing”, and strongly rejected any suggestion Mr Abbott was lobbied at the private function later in the evening.
Ms Whitehouse’s assertions were backed by a statement issued to New Matilda in May by a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, who said he “could not recall” any lobbying efforts by Whitehouse.
The Prime Minister has also strongly refuted any suggestion the scholarship awarded to his daughter was not on the basis of merit, and has refused to update his parliamentary interests’ register on that basis.
Documents and testimony obtained by New Matilda in May revealed the scholarship for a Bachelor of Design was not advertised, was kept secret from other students and even senior staff at the college, and was awarded after Ms Abbott attended a single meeting with the college.
Whitehouse’s website today still reports that scholarships are not available for the Bachelor of Design course.
The Whitehouse story broke after the Abbott Government handed down a federal budget which it described as signaling “the end of the age of entitlement”.
That budget also proposes to increase the fees paid on student loans, and de-regulate the higher education sector, which will see fees for tertiary education courses sky-rocket.
The budget also, for the first time, proposes to provide access for privately owned colleges to $800 million in public funding.
The reforms have yet to be passed through parliament.
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