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April 11th 2013 print

Philippa Martyr

What would Charlie Perkins say?

Four happy scholarships winners are off to Oxford and Cambridge in the name of fostering Indigenous achievement. The thing is, though, the recipients already boast lustrous CVs. What about a little help for Aborigines who have not yet got afoot on the ladder?

The four recipients of the Charlie Perkins Scholarship have been announced. These scholarships are not, as the name may suggest, sponsored by a trust set up by Charlie Perkins. They are in fact jointly supported by the Australian and British governments and Rio Tinto. They’re named after Perkins because he was the first person to graduate from a university in Australia who openly identified as Aboriginal. (I have long suspected that there were others before him who just kept quiet about it.)

Who are the winners? The Sky News report describes them as follows:

  • Vincent Backhaus, who found his win ‘nerve-wracking’ – ‘Mr Backhaus wants to work with indigenous youth and help them with transitions at high school and building resilience;

  • Sarah Lynn Rees, a ‘builder’s daughter says she grew up with a woodshed in the back yard and ‘the smell of timber.’ ‘I love creativity, problem solving and art and this is a way I can mix them altogether,’ she said. She wants to become a qualified architect when she returns to Australia and put some indigenous flavour into design work. ‘I’m interested in the concept of nomadic housing,’ Ms Lynn Rees said, adding there are only seven indigenous architects registered in Australia’;
  • Rex Betar, ‘Oxford-bound to study a Master of Business Administration and plans to work in corporate strategy before moving into federal politics in the longer term. ‘I really want to make social change, so I think why not go to the top of the tree,’ he told AAP. Growing up in Tweed Heads, Mr Betar said he had some big challenges as a youngster and that education was key to a better life. ‘I was in a wheelchair until I was 12-years-old, I was born with cerebral palsy,’ he said. ‘None of my family had finished high school before and there often wasn’t food on the table.’ But Mr Betar was a ‘precocious child’ and decided at age seven that he wanted to go to Oxford’;

  • Leila Smith, who ‘will study public policy at Cambridge, to build on her decade’s work in Indigenous health. At the moment she’s working for the Indigenous Doctors Association in policy development.’

They sound like a nice, deserving crew, don’t they? I am a huge fan of aspirational living, and I am an equally huge fan of the best and brightest educational opportunities for genuinely disadvantaged Australians, from all walks of life and all colours of the rainbow.

Then I found out more about the four ‘young indigenous movers and shakers’ who are off to Oxford and Cambridge at more than $50,000 per year (including tuition fees and living expenses).

  • Vincent Backhaus (Queensland): I was initially quite happy about Backhaus going off to Cambridge, because he started life as a tradie. So you can imagine my dismay when I learned that he had also gone to James Cook University to study anthropology and psychology. He then went on the 2012 Aurora Travelling Scholars tour to the UK and US. Backhaus got to visit Harvard, Columbia and NY State Universities, and then announced that he ‘intends to undertake postgraduate studies in Education Research focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of students in the transitional phases of education.’ Thanks to a Charlie Perkins Scholarship, Backhaus will be doing this at Oxford (psychology) and Cambridge (education). Backhaus says, ‘he hopes to apply what he learns to helping young Indigenous men from "challenging environments" when he returns.’

  • Sarah Lynn Rees (Tasmania): Rees is a new member of Indigenous Architecture Victoria. She is currently Architectural Assistant at Jackson Clements Burrows and 2013 SONA Vice President. She was privately educated at MacKillop (Catholic) College, and then at Rosny College (senior secondary). Rees then attended the University of Melbourne where she won the Dean’s Honour Award two years running for being placed in the top 3% of students. She speaks Italian, and appears to have been working since she graduated. So why is this apparently privileged and mainstreamed high-achiever off to the UK’s most expensive universities partly at taxpayers’ expense? Rees is already working in an architectural firm and (according to her LinkedIn profile) belongs to the right professional associations, so she’s actually on track to become a qualified architect right here. And once she gets started, surely she could pay for her own trip to the UK?

  • Rex Betar (NSW): Betar has had a tough start to life, being born with cerebral palsy into a poor family, and he’ll have physical difficulties for the rest of his life. However, he managed to get out of his wheelchair after the age of 12 and eventually became a state silver medallist in Olympic Freestyle Wrestling against able-bodied athletes. Betar entered UNSW via the Indigenous pre-law program and subsequently completed Arts and Law degrees there in 2007. While at UNSW he was active in the Debating Society, Philip Baxter College and coached the UNSW Rugby Club. He then obtained financial support from the Roberta Sykes Foundation to undertake higher degree studies at Queens University, Belfast and National University of Ireland, Galway. There he completed respectively a Master of Laws (Human Rights Law) and a Master of Laws (Human Rights Law – Cross-border). According to his LinkedIn profile, Betar is currently Environment Systems Analyst, Group Environment at Qantas/ Strategy Consultant at Qantas. Prior to that, he was a junior lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin, and he’s also been working ever since he graduated.

  • Leila Smith (NSW): Leila Smith is an experienced researcher and academic co-author. Like Vincent Backhaus, Smith was also a 2012 Aurora Scholars tourer. She describes her role at the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association as follows: ‘My role involves work on AIDA’s strategic policy development and the development and implementation of AIDA’s research agenda. I am also responsible for AIDA’s communications portfolio including our newsletter Blackchat and implementing our Social Media Strategy.’

It’s quite different, isn’t it. I don’t grudge any of them the trip or the fun times, but I wish they’d done it on their own money, because if their professional profiles are to be believed, none of them is short of a quid. Nor are any of them what you might call actually disadvantaged, and if they were initially, they’ve easily overcome that disadvantage and have in fact beaten significant odds.

I wonder what old Charlie Perkins – he of the 11 brothers and sisters, working as a fitter and turner, then cleaning toilets to put himself through Sydney University – would have made of this lot.

Philippa Martyr blogs, often regretfully, at Transverse City.