Thousands of scholarships and bursaries are available to help rural students and families doing it tough in the drought, but many receive few or no applicants.

Story Ken Eastwood

Private schools, universities, industry bodies and non-profit organisations offer a growing number of ways to help rural, remote and regional students who are struggling financially, but many of these opportunities are going unfulfilled.

Ravenswood in Sydney is keen for more girls to apply for its rural residential scholarship, worth almost $30,000 a year, to join the 50 boarders, one-third of whom are from the bush. “The scholarship has been a long-standing, ongoing commitment from Ravenswood – an annual contribution to cover the costs associated with boarding,” says director of boarding Lucy Cumming. “What we don’t want is the scholarship sitting there not being used. We’re looking for someone who will be a wonderful contributor to our community, and someone who we think is in greatest need and has the resilience and capacity to board well.”

Current recipient of the scholarship is Annabelle Simpson, a year 10 student from Wagga Wagga, whose mother burst into tears when told they had got the scholarship. “I met Annabelle at the Dubbo Boarding Schools Expo on an absolutely shocking day,” Lucy says. “It was 7-8 degrees Celsius and raining cats and dogs. Most people were packing up, and she came in drenched in her netball gear, because she’d been out playing netball in it, and I thought, ‘This girl’s great’.” 

Lucy is ensuring that the culture of the school is supporting families who are struggling in the drought, through fundraising efforts and school assemblies, where the girls share their stories. Year 8 student Sophie Kirk, from Condobolin, is fundraising by selling doonas made with wool from her family’s property. “It’s a real privilege to be on the journey with these families,” Lucy says. “We are aiming to place value on rural families and give the school community a greater empathy for and understanding of what some of the boarders are facing when they go home to these drought-stricken properties.”

Many private schools offer academic, sporting, musical and other scholarships, as well as special assistance targeted at rural families. For example, just over one-quarter of the students at Geelong Grammar are on some form of scholarship, and a lot of those are from rural and regional areas. Bursaries are offered to students who are already enrolled and facing financial hardship. As a result of the pressure on rural communities, the school is currently raising money for new scholarships that will specifically target regional and rural students. Those scholarships should be launched at the end of this year.

St Joseph’s College at Hunters Hill in Sydney – Australia’s largest boarding school for boys, with half the 1100 students boarding – has offered Boys From the Bush bursaries for many years. Currently up to 50 percent of the boarding and tuition fees are covered for 29 rural students.

However, not all financial assistance is via scholarships worth big bucks. Since 2005, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) has helped more than 160,000 disadvantaged rural students through $50 gift vouchers to meet the costs associated with the start of a new school year, such as uniforms, stationery supplies, sporting equipment or art materials. In 2019, almost $600,000 in vouchers were distributed to 11,683 students.

Brad Butler, from the Fleurieu Community Foundation in South Australia, which has distributed FRRR Back to School vouchers since 2011, says the value of the program goes way beyond the monetary value. “I am constantly amazed by the value of $50,” he says. “It doesn’t sound like much, but if you do not have it then it is significant. But, honestly of more significance is the fact that when a family is struggling financially and someone walks in and says, ‘Hey, here is a $50 voucher for X or Y’, it is really saying, ‘Hey, we care’. When your back is against the wall and you feel you are doing it all alone, but you find out there is someone who cares about your circumstances, then that means the world. That is the value of $50.”

Wendy Cohen is CEO of the Country Education Foundation (CEF), an organisation that has spent 25 years supporting rural students with their education, to the tune of $10 million. “Yet a lot of young people and their families don’t even know about the opportunities and the support that we provide,” she says. “When you’re sitting around the dinner table discussing how you’re going to find a way to feed the stock, or how you’re going to pay the bills, thinking about sending a child away for education elsewhere can seem out of the question. But we have 20 university partners and as a result of our conversations with them we know a good many of their scholarships go unspent.”

CEF offers various means of support. It curates a centralised website with some 90 pages of scholarships that are available to rural students, “and we know a lot of these scholarships go begging”, Wendy says. But the foundation also facilitates a sponsorship model in which rural communities are encouraged to support local students, financially and in other ways, through grants. “We offered 570 grants and scholarships this year, which is a 13% increase on last year. This year we’re aware there are increased needs among our students and rural communities. That’s partly because of the drought. There are so many factors pushing people down in rural and regional areas. But the country is really important and rural students have a right to aspire to whatever they want to do, and at CEF we can help make those dreams a reality.”

AgriFutures awards 10–15 Horizon Scholarships each year for university students in the final years of their undergraduate degree. The industry-sponsored scholarships include a $5000 bursary per year, plus $5000 in suitable work placement opportunities and a week of professional development. Manager of communications and capacity building for AgriFutures, Pip Grant, says the scholarships are vital at this time. “A lot of students we see are torn between continuing their tertiary education and going back home and working on the farm,” she says. “We had over 130 applicants this year, which is a little down on last year.”

Other help available for people who want to continue their education includes the EJ Connellan Award, granted each year by the Connellan Airways Trust to people over the age of 16 in remote areas. This year’s winner of the $10,000 award, announced in April, was Ellen Litchfield from Wilpoorinna station outside of Marree, SA, who will use the money to help complete her Master of Sustainable Agriculture at Charles Sturt University. The Junior EJ Connellan Award, which was a $20,000 award over four years, was given to Curtis Rayment of Eildon Park station in Winton, Qld, who is studying medicine at James Cook University. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #125

Outback Magazine: June/July 2019