What is the difference between a voucher and a scholarship?

In an article published in this morning’s Australian about the university reform proposal (pdf) launched today by the Group of Eight, journalist Dorothy Illing wrote:

AUSTRALIA’S most powerful block of universities has thrown down the gauntlet to the major parties to introduce a radical new model for higher education underpinned by student vouchers and price deregulation. ….The centrepiece of the Group of Eight plan … is a system of portable government-funded scholarships that would shift control of demand for university places away from the commonwealth. (emphasis added)

Is there a difference between ‘vouchers’ and ‘scholarships’? Politically, they have different connotations. Vouchers have long been associated with plans to end central control of public education, and the very word triggers knee-jerk negative reactions from some leftists. Scholarships, by contrast, are generally associated with reducing the cost of education to people judged academically able or financially needy. Most people intuitively think that is a good thing. It is no surprise that the Group of Eight chose the term ‘scholarships’ over ‘vouchers’.

Conceptually, however, what the Group of Eight is proposing is closer to vouchers. Both vouchers and scholarships are subsidies aimed at individuals, as opposed to the block grants used to finance Australian universities before 2005. Scholarships are usually awarded to individuals to attend a particular school or university. The key idea behind vouchers, by contrast, is that the beneficiary of the subsidy also gets to choose where it is spent. The ‘scholarships’ suggested by the Group of Eight could be redeemed for any accredited higher education course in Australia. Just like vouchers, they are aimed at creating a publicly-subsidised market.
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