The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) has been labelled a ‘game changer’ and it counts many Rupert Murdoch figures among its supporters. Yet despite the glowing press, no proper review of its activities has been conducted, and some experts say that not all that glows is gold. Zacharias Szumer investigates.
A parliamentary committee recommended a review of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) in 2017. However, in Parliament today, it was revealed that no such review was ever conducted; nor is one planned, according to Tony Cook – Secretary of the Department of Education.
In mid-August, Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper published a short piece ($) on Indigenous education, asking its readers, “What if there’s a simple way to close the gap?”
According to the article’s key source of insight, AIEF’s executive director Andrew Penfold, the answer is extra government funding to send Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids to the nation’s most-prestigious boarding schools.
Unsurprisingly, Andrew Penfold’s foundation is in the business of doing just that.
AIEF parks more cash than it spends
Since its founding in 2008, the AIEF has supported 1200 students to attend some of the country’s most prestigious schools, such as Knox Grammar, Scotch College and Aquinas College, among dozens of others.
Over those 15 years, the AIEF has received over $316 million in funding, $147 million of which has come from the federal government. Much of the rest is donations from companies and philanthropic trusts.
The Australian and Sky News are both AIEF partners, and regularly publish glowing profiles
Of the $316 million it has received since 2008, the foundation has only spent $120 million – $140m is currently held in investments and $57 million has been pledged but not received.
“In 2022, AIEF distributed a total of $8.6 million in scholarship distributions representing an average secondary scholarship amount of approximately $26,000 per student,” its annual report reads.
AIEF only pays for some of the cost of schooling; ABSTUDY covers some of it and students’ families also contribute a means-tested amount linked to household income.
A 2020 report from consultancy firm KPMG says, “the median household income for AIEF families in 2018 was in the $60,000 – $80,000 bracket”, but also that household income for the “largest share of AIEF Scholarship Students’ families …. was up to $40,000 per year.”
Friends in high places
The foundation’s latest annual report lists the Commonwealth Bank, HSBC, Qantas and KPMG as partners, as well as many other large corporations.Its patron-in-chief is the Governor-general, and its ambassadors include Andrew Forrest, Alan Joyce, Stan Grant, Ray Martin, Dan Bourchier, former editor-in-chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell, Sky News pundit Sharri Markson and conservative Murdoch commentator Janet Albrechtson. Warren Mundine has been its chair since 2013.
Tony Abbott was such a fan of the AIEF’s work that, after being elected in 2013, he picked Andrew Penfold and Warren Mundine to join his Indigenous Advisory Council. Former prime minister Scott Morrison and current Education Minister Jason Clare have both lavished the organisation with praise.
The Australian and Sky News are both AIEF partners, and these outlets regularly publish glowing profiles of AIEF alumni which highlight the scholarship’s positive impact on students’ lives. MWM counted over half a dozen such articles in The Australian alone.
MWM has no evidence to doubt the veracity of these accounts. However, they contrast significantly with information shared in recent conversations conducted with Indigenous education experts and school parents.
The Australian’s reporting on the AIEF also seems to avoid the type of stories found in one of the most comprehensive academic studies into the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding school students.
Boarding and Australia’s First Peoples was published in 2022 by Dr Marnie O’Bryan, a former teacher and coordinator of the Victorian Indigenous Education Network who is now based at the ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods.
‘Cannon fodder’ for the PR machine?
O’Bryan writes that a number of participants in her study “reflected on how students were used as cannon fodder for the school or scholarship provider’s PR machine, with seemingly little regard for the young person’s own wellbeing.”
O’Bryan recounts how a young man, at a dinner attended by over 500 people, was asked ‘to speak about how he understood the value of education in light of his mother’s suicide.’
And “as part of a well-publicised advertising campaign” in 2013, this student’s scholarship provider also released a promotional video of the student in which “the young man becomes visibly agitated as he again references his parent’s death as the backdrop to his own education story.”
O’Bryan does not directly name the scholarship provider in question.
She does, however, write that the scholarship provider who produced that video commissioned an evaluation several years later that was “so selectively informed” that it claimed: “‘Interviews with Partner Schools and the Alumni survey highlighted a number of positive impacts of the programs for … scholarship students, families or school communities … No negative consequences were observed’”.
That quote can be found in the 2020 KPMG evaluation of the AIEF.
In 2021, Penfold wrote that the KPMG report was “the most rigorous and detailed evaluation of any Indigenous education program ever published in Australia.”
“If only on the basis of the catastrophic abuse of power this student experienced at boarding school, KPMG’s finding is disrespectful and disingenuous to the point of being unconscionable,” was O’Bryan’s evaluation.
“[T]hat it was ever filmed, that he was ever invited or required to speak in public about the most traumatic event a young person could possibly experience, is a serious indictment on people who tell us their primary commitment is to creating opportunity for First Nations youth.”
The deleted video
The video has since been deleted, but a cached version of the AIEF website, accessed using the Wayback Machine internet archive, shows a video that seems to match O’Bryan’s description.
“It seems that somewhere along the line, these people lost the wood for the trees. The terrible true cost of prioritising fundraising objectives over the wellbeing of a supremely vulnerable young person is exposed in all its ugliness here,” she writes.
A parent of another former AIEF student, who would only speak anonymously, told MWM that his kids also received “absolutely abhorrent” treatment for the sake of PR.
He said school and scholarship providers published marketing material that included intimate and sensitive details about his child’s family background without asking for consent, something he described as “poverty porn.”
Scholarship providers and schools were in a “race to the bottom”, he said. “If you can tell the saddest story, you’ll get the money.”
It makes white people feel good, that you’re helping a poor Aboriginal child … it’s sickening.
MWM also spoke to a senior figure in the private education sector, who would also only speak anonymously. Of AIEF he said: “Anybody who’s making an effort in Indigenous education, I’m not going to get in their way; go for it.
But don’t for the sake of your donors over-report it as glorious and without error, because it’s just not the case.
Drop-out numbers questioned
The AIEF’s most recent annual report boasts a 95 per cent annual retention and year 12 completion rate. The KPMG report says the foundation’s annual retention and year 12 completion rate have consistently been above 90 per cent.
However, O’Bryan writes that “there is no clarity” about whether this statistic “includes students who drop out during their first year or otherwise fail to meet mandated outcomes.”
In 2018, the ABC published an article in which an AIEF spokesperson clarifies that first-year students are “not technically eligible for AIEF funding at that point.”
One of the eligibility requirements for receiving AIEF funding is that a student has already completed their first year, so those who drop out in their first year at a boarding school don’t count.
Still, that same article argues that, according to AIEF’s own figures, its dropout rate at that time was likely to be closer to 20 per cent.
MWM understands that AIEF strongly disputes the findings quoted in this 2018 article but has not yet been provided a public rebuttal.
Previous research by O’Bryan suggests that almost 60 per cent of boarders from remote communities drop out in the first two years, predominantly due to feeling socially and culturally isolated and unhappy being away from country.
Other experts speaking anonymously described AIEF’s reported figures variously as “match-fixing” and “cleansing the data”, but couldn’t explain exactly how this was occurring.
MWM reached out to Penfold for clarification on AIEF’s precise criteria for calculating student retention but didn’t receive a response.
“Scholarship providers failing to acknowledge young people who drop out during their first year at a school, [and] thereby allowing them to make extravagant claims around the rate of ‘success’ for scholarship recipients … renders a population of supremely vulnerable young people functionally invisible,”O’Bryan writes in her book.
Indigenous education expert associate professor John Guenther told MWM that, while the AIEF’s numbers might be strictly correct, such figures should never be compared to overall Indigenous high-school completion rates, as seen in numerous articles in The Australian, one of them penned by Andrew Penfold himself.
It’s a ridiculous comparison … the average high school doesn’t get to choose who the kids are who come into their school.
The AIEF doesn’t only require a child to have already been accepted into and completed a year at a prestigious boarding school before they will provide funding; a child must also be “enthusiastic about attending school” and the school must have sufficient support in place so that the student is “likely to successfully complete Year 12 at the AIEF partner school”.
“They’ve loaded the dice so far that they can’t lose, because of the strict criteria that they’re using to fund the program,” Guenther says.
The potential cost of retrospective funding
AIEF’s retrospective funding model has also come under fire.
According to AIEF’s own information, after contributions by the parents and ABSTUDY, AIEF “pays the shortfall in boarding and tuition fees and some other expenses … at the end of each year.”
Several experts told MWM this means that, if a student doesn’t complete a given year, they don’t receive scholarship funding.
“Exposure to financial loss means that parents and schools have ‘skin in the game’”, O’Bryan has written elsewhere, quoting the AIEF’s own phrase.
It’s a model that AIEF is reportedly seeking to expand.
O’Bryan quotes a parliamentary inquiry submission in which Penfold advocates for the entire sector to transition to “a 100 per cent success-based retrospective funding model” as this “would quickly limit wastage of government funds.”
This funding model “may put inordinate or unsustainable pressure on young people to persevere at boarding school when health and other indicators suggest that they would be better to return home,” O’Bryan warns.
She tells the story of a year-eight AIEF recipient at an elite school who sought to leave after a crisis occurred at home. The girl’s mother told O’Bryan that school officials were threatening the girl with the risk of having to pay the whole fee without the scholarship’s assistance if she was to leave.
She was eventually suspended and then expelled, after pressure to stay at the school during a family crisis caused her to become “increasingly oppositional and self-destructive.”
A lack of independent oversight?
Most experts MWM talked to – including several who said they couldn’t speak on the record – said the AIEF’s program lacks independent, expert oversight.
The aforementioned senior private education figure told MWM that the AIEF program “does suit some kids and they go well in that …. but, like the rest of us, they should be subject to public scrutiny.”
O’Bryan writes that, “to date there has been little high-quality, robust and truly independent evaluation of the programs that are claimed to be effective in changing outcomes for these young people.”
A 2017 Parliamentary Inquiry report recommended that “AIEF, and other such programs, be reviewed to ensure that the programs are equitable, evidence-based and incorporate clear and effective performance measurement…”
No comprehensive review has yet been carried out, beyond the KPMG report AIEF commissioned in 2020.
In an interview in late 2022, Penfold suggested that AIEF was more transparent and accountable than other programs, claiming the foundation had to “beg for support while other initiatives that fail year after year or worse, don’t even report on what was spent and achieved, but keep getting funded. There is a lot of talk about evidence-based funding but not much action.”
He said the AIEF’s inability to secure more funding was due to “influential unions and others who ideologically and philosophically oppose private education of any kind and feel that Indigenous families should not be able to make the free choice themselves of how and where they want to educate their kids.”
“We’re not suggesting that our model is the only one, or the best one. But we absolutely know that it’s something that works with proven outcomes in an area that’s been littered with failure for 50 years,” he said.
“Ever since I started doing this work, people have said to me, ‘We’ve got to improve the public education system.’ I couldn’t agree more,” Penfold said.
“But in the meantime, there are mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles who’ve got kids ready to go to secondary school right now – and they’re not getting the opportunities they need!”
“Why shouldn’t we open the doors to the best quality education in Australia for the kids who need it the most whilst governments spend the next 20 years improving what Chris Sarra refers to as ‘third world’ schools that so many Indigenous families are forced into with zero choice?”
Some experts said they weren’t opposed to boarding schools, but questioned whether an expansion of AIEF’s model was a good path to closing the gap in education.
Guenther said the AIEF was:
not a program designed to build equity or to address so-called disadvantage. It’s a program designed to justify the use of public funds … to fund a program that in some way does the opposite.
“By supporting that handful of kids, as well-deserving as they might be, they are taking money that could be going into remote schools to give a better education to those who are left behind. Those that don’t meet the eligibility criteria, those that really do need a leg-up – it bypasses those people altogether.”
“If schools were funded properly, in their communities, to deliver a quality education, then that is equally, if not more, likely to close the gap because you’re going to be then supporting those young people who need the help a lot more.”