School days: The Whitehouse College of Design in Surry Hills. Photo: Peter Rae
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been forced this week to answer questions about his daughter Frances, as details of her scholarship at a private college remain cloaked in mystery.
In 2011, Frances was awarded a very rare $60,636 scholarship to the Whitehouse Institute of Design. The institute's chairman is a Liberal Party donor and friend of Mr Abbott, Les Taylor.
The substantial award meant the Prime Minister's middle daughter was required to pay just $7546 towards her three-year bachelor in design, from which she graduated with distinction in February.
Dirt digging: Frances and Bridget Abbott with their father Tony Abbott. Photo: Helen Nezdropa
Four days after the revelations emerged, the Surry Hills college is yet to shed light on the secretive scholarship system.
Despite the award being known as the Chairman's Scholarship, Mr Taylor, chairman of Whitehouse's board of governors, said he did not know how scholars were selected.
''I'm a semi-retired lawyer. I wouldn't know what criteria you go through to make an assessment of somebody,'' he said on Friday.
Fairfax Media repeatedly contacted Whitehouse chief executive and spokesman Ian Tudor, who is in Jakarta, for comment. Mr Tudor did not respond to detailed questions but released a statement on Wednesday confirming ''that Whitehouse has given scholarships for at least 10 years'' and that Ms Abbott's scholarship was the Chairman's Scholarship, which is awarded occasionally. ''Frances was the second recipient. I understand that the selection of Frances was done at arm's length from the chairman by the owner, founder and managing director of the institute, Leanne Whitehouse,'' Mr Tudor said.
Fairfax Media asked repeatedly to speak to Ms Whitehouse about this and other scholarships this week, without success.
Mr Taylor denies the undergraduate scholarship had any political ties. ''Of course it's not linked to a favour to Tony Abbott,'' he said. ''I don't owe Tony Abbott any favours.''
The former Commonwealth Bank general counsel earlier this week conceded that he ''probably'' commended Ms Abbott, saying: ''I probably did say to someone at Whitehouse 'Frances is a nice girl or something, good family, works hard, I reckon she'd do well'.''
The Prime Minister has denied having any influence over the college and its awards. On Friday, at a press conference at Campbelltown, he dismissed questions over the scholarship as ''a bit of dirt digging''. Mr Abbott says he did not publicly disclose the scholarship as it was merit-based, rather than a gift, and he has repeatedly underlined his daughter's academic ability.
Ms Abbott is working as a teacher's aide at Whitehouse's Melbourne campus, where she intends to continue her studies, the Prime Minister's office confirmed. ''As the course has not commenced, she is yet to enrol,'' a spokeswoman said.
Former Whitehouse faculty member Monique Rappell said she did not know the criteria upon which scholarships were offered.
''Even when I worked there, it was extremely difficult to find out how the scholarship system worked,'' said Ms Rappell, the former head of interior design, who left Whitehouse in January 2012. ''I attempted to get a scholarship for a very good student who had run out of funding and I couldn't get it, even though she was the top student in her degree course.
''None of my students were ever awarded a scholarship. I was aware that they existed and I was aware that Leanne Whitehouse, as the founder of the Whitehouse, felt it was her right to make the final decision.''
A classmate of Ms Abbott said she and other students she had contacted since details of the $60,000 Chairman's Scholarship came to light were not aware of the existence of an academic award that covered the cost of the three-year undergraduate course. ''We had no knowledge of these scholarships whatsoever. If there was a scholarship opportunity available, we would have applied for it,'' the graduate said.
While studying at Whitehouse, the former student was not aware that Frances had been awarded the funds. ''We were under the impression that Frances was on FEE-HELP like the rest of us, or that her parents were helping because the fees there were so high,'' she said.
''This isn't about sour grapes,'' she said. ''It doesn't sit right with me that the Liberal Party in particular are making cuts to higher education and upping debt repayment while one person in particular gets a free education under the radar.''