The AIEF will celebrate its 15th anniversary next year. Can you tell me a bit about its history. How did it come about?
I was living in Hong Kong, working as a banker, when I lost 12 of my rugby mates in the Bali bombings. A group of us set up a fund to raise money for their wives and children, and we also sent about $1 million down to Indonesia for kids who’d lost parents. This has nothing to do with the AIEF, except that the experience made me realise that all the skills I’d developed over many years working in law and investment banking – like setting up trusts and investments – could be used for things other than being a banker or a lawyer.
Shortly after that, I was in Australia and someone told me that my old boarding school had started enrolling Indigenous kids. I’ve always been very connected to Indigenous issues. I grew up in Glebe, back when it wasn’t the trendy university town it is now, and I ran around with some Aboriginal kids. So when I heard that Joey’s (St Joseph’s College) had started enrolling Aboriginal kids, I was captivated by the idea.
My own father died when I was very young and my mum fell pregnant at university and had to withdraw. She worked in hospitality – in bars and restaurants – and she worked late nights and weekends, which gave me a lot of freedom. In my early teens, I skipped school regularly, roaming the streets and going to pinball halls. Eventually, my mum and grandmother intervened and begged St Joseph’s to take me in. I went there halfway through Year 9 – at the bottom of the class and threatened frequently with expulsion – and came out three years later with good HSC, studied law and went on to have an amazing career. It was all due to the environment at Joey’s: the teachers, the support, the pastoral care and the friendships. I’m not saying boarding school is for everyone, but for me it really worked. My whole life changed.
Education, throughout history, has been the way that people can break the cycle of poverty, social disadvantage and exclusion. After the Bali bombings I was really inspired when I later heard that Joeys had started enrolling Indigenous kids, so I went to see them. At that point, they only had five or six Indigenous kids, out of 1000 kids at the school. I asked them why they didn’t have 40 Indigenous kids, which would be more representative of the community. Unsurprisingly, the big blockage was money. By this point, Michelle and I’d been living overseas for 15 years. We quit our jobs, moved back to Australia and spent the next five years volunteering to set up an endowment fund for Joey’s. It now close to $8 million, to enable 30 to 40 Aboriginal boys to get educated at the college in perpetuity.
At the same time, we were having conversations with other schools. A lot of the girls’ schools were saying, “We could never do this. It’s only ever men who give money to their old school. Would you be able to help us?” Michelle and I decided that we would try to do the same thing for girls that we had done at Joey’s. So, we partnered with a whole lot of girls’ boarding schools and we set up the AIEF for that purpose.
How has the organisation evolved over that time?
When we were setting up the fund for Joey’s, we worked for five years completely voluntarily. We didn’t earn a single cent and there were zero outgoings so 100 cents in the dollar went into the fund.
Once we started to work across four or five different girls schools, we couldn’t do that as we would need our own office and staff etc to scale up. So we approached the Federal government. Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister at the time, told us that if we took the program national, he would give us $20 million – provided we could match that amount from the private sector. We managed to do that and have continued to grow our funding in a 50:50 partnership with the private sector and successive Australian Governments.
Now we partner with about 35 amazing schools around the country and fund almost 400 scholarships annually. Our model is to empower Indigenous families to make their own decisions about where the want their children to go to school, so they build directly relationships with the schools and the schools run through the whole enrollment process directly with the families. The schools build relationships and connections with the families and communities and we sit behind the schools-family relationship. We feel this is not just cost efficient, but it also produces better successful outcomes when the school has a direct relationship with the student and family. The results we have achieved support this, as we have one of lowest expense ratios in the non-profit sector and among the highest success rates.
So you don’t have your own selection criteria; it’s up to the individual schools to select the students?
We have four overarching criteria: the student has to have financial need; they need to be enthusiastic about where they’re going to school; their family has to be supportive and make a financial contribution, so in effect we’re co-investing with the parents; and the school they’re going to needs to have the right resources and support in place to enable them to complete Year 12 because that’s our major goal. Those are the four things that we need satisfied; after that it’s up to the schools to enroll the students through their own processes.
What is the demand for your scholarships like, compared to supply?
We could quadruple in size if we had more money. We’ve had a lot of schools saying they’re receiving 30 to 40 (or more) families contact them for every one place available. So, the demand far outweighs the supply.
What’s interesting about this is that we have never gone into the communities and said, “You should go to boarding school!” It’s all been word-of-mouth. Grassroots demand has been generated from students who have gone to good schools, got a good education, and got a good job. They become role models for other kids in the community. Many people talk about empowerment and self-determination for Indigenous people. Well, we wouldn’t exist unless we had thousands of Aboriginal parents every year asking for a scholarship for their children.
Do a lot of students return to their communities?
The last figure I saw on that was that around 30%- 40% return to their communities. But you have to remember that a lot of those students are currently at a university in a city away from their home community.
We intentionally have zero agenda on this subject. There is a small number of fringe people who say , “You shouldn’t remove Indigenous kids from their communities.” And I say, “Really? Should I tell your kids where they should go and live and work and live their life? If they want to go to New York or London or Hong Kong or Sydney like I did, then why would you assume they shouldn’t and why would you be so paternalistic to tell Indigenous people where they should work or live?” A huge amount of the nation’s most influential and most prominent Indigenous leaders don’t live or work in their home community and nobody tells them they don’t belong in the cities. It’s patronising and paternalistic.
AIEF graduates advocate for the issues that they are passionate about – and a lot of them are really passionate and outspoken about a range of issues in Indigenous Australia – but they don’t need to be living in their home community to do that. Look at Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, Pat Dodson, Linda Burney, Warren Mundine, Stan Grant and the like. They have become national leaders through their grit, passion and determination and the indefatigable work they do, not where they live.
What are your growth plans? Would you ever consider moving into say, primary schools?
Not at this stage. We’re really disciplined about mission drift. At the moment, we do two things: we educate kids through boarding school and university; and then we make sure they have a successful transition to employment when they finish their studies.
When we’ve got those two things completely licked and we’ve got all the money in the world and no more demand for places, then we might think about doing other things.
The most recent Census data and NAPLAN results suggest that the school system is still failing Indigenous Australians. Obviously improvements are needed in a lot of areas to close the gap, but how would you rank education among those?
It’s definitely number one. There’s no question. We have research and data that show that when it comes to well-educated Indigenous kids, there is no gap. They perform at the same level as well-educated non-Indigenous Australians on all metrics: life expectancy, health, unemployment, incarceration. The evidence is pretty clear on that.
There is, however, debate around what the best type of educational setting is. 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.
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. Last week, I had a Greens Senator say the same thing. I told him, “Mate, I’ve listening to this for 20 years. Let’s do that! 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?
Michelle: Year 12 completion rates are improving – and we’re part of that. What is interesting is the effect that an AIEF scholarship can have on a community. We don’t have enough places for every student from within a community, but we’ve seen communities whose highest level of education was previously Year 10 get to a point where the kids are completing high school. So it’s not just one life that’s changed, there’s a ripple effect on the family, siblings, cousins and extended family.
Andrew: Yes, but we’re still barely moving the needle. I was in a meeting years ago with government representatives and they were talking about these percentage gaps. I said, “If we were to close the gap in Year 12 completions, how many extra Indigenous students would be required to finish Year 12?” And they said it was about ten thousand. I said, “That is so easy. It’s staring you in the face, if you had the will, because there are organisations like ours that have really good outcomes and strong track records – and can’t keep up with demand, yet still have 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.”
That’s one of the questions I was going to ask you. You’ve been very successful in tapping private funders and you’ve built a solid evidence base, so how long do you think it will take for governments to step up and fund these kinds of scholarships?
Governments all around Australia are supporting these kinds of scholarships but nowhere near the level to meet demand. It’s anyone’s guess what the reasons are but a lot of it is 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.
For more information, visit AIEF’s website.