Financial support & scholarships

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

Financial support offered by institutions in the form of grants, bursaries and scholarships is clearly significant in terms of expanding access to, and supporting the retention, participation and success of equity group students. Cost has been noted by several researchers as a significant barrier for students accessing and aspiring to higher education (James, 2002; Scull & Cuthill, 2010; Wilks & Wilson, 2012; Naylor, Baik & James, 2013).  Le & Miller (2005) noted the proposed changes to HECS were likely to impact on low SES students more than their high SES counterparts, and therefore universities should increase their financial contributions to fund more scholarships and fee-waivers. Two studies of note included in this review have examined the impact of scholarships on the experiences of equity students. Reed & Hurd (2014) examined how the scholarships offered at Macquarie University had affected retention rates of recipients and conducted interview to collect qualitative reports of their impact. They found that scholarships offered significant benefits in the form of access to resources, incentives to apply to university, a sense of security and belonging, as well as increased motivation, engagement and self-efficacy, with one student describing their scholarship as “a value beyond money” (2014, p. 10). Reed & Hurd argue that the benefits are so profound that institutional views of scholarships need to be shifted from incentive to key institutional mechanisms. Similar findings are reported by Carson (2010), suggesting that the financial support offered in the form of scholarships at Swinburne had an overwhelmingly positive impact. She reports that two thirds (64.2%) of recipients perceived the scholarship to provide them financial security and improve their quality of life.

Findings from Zacharias et al.’s (2016) research into the impact of scholarships at Deakin University, the University of Sydney and Queensland University of Technology also echo those of Reed & Hurd (2014), as they note that at all three locations – which were chosen on the basis of their differences - equity scholarships are effective at retaining students of all groups. Participants/recipients in their study reported that receiving financial assistance in the form of a scholarship reduced stress, boosted morale and gave them more time to study (Zacharias et al., 2016). They argue, “scholarships help overcome financial disadvantage but cannot overcome the effects of very complex lives… [but they are] however, an important tool where financial hardship is seen as the greatest barrier to participation” (2016, p. 67). Having examined three schemes, Zacharias et al. (2016) conclude that the more complex the scheme, the less efficient it is, and the more difficult it is to evaluate relationship between money and outcomes. Therefore, they recommend that universities design simple scholarships, “with high volume products to generate effective student support, efficient processes and meaningful data” (2016, p. 8). However, working from the understanding that such schemes can never offer support to all students in need, they offer the reminder that the best financial support that the Commonwealth can offer is a ‘predictable and appropriate’ level of payment through Centrelink system (means-tested grants).

On the other hand, Harrison and McCaig (2017) explored the impact of financial bursaries in addressing the relative educational disadvantage experienced by financially disadvantaged students. The findings revealed a mixture of results, which suggest that in some cases, bursaries are insufficient to overcome fully overcome the impact of financial disadvantages, although they are observed to be effective or highly effective in the case of other students (Harrison & McCaig, 2017). Nevertheless, regardless of the mixed results, Harrison and McCaig (2017) conclude that bursaries should be maintained as a form of financial support for financially disadvantaged students due to the positive impacts observed in the study.


Carson, T. (2010). Overcoming student hardship at Swinburne University, Australia: an insight into the impact of equity scholarships on financially disadvantaged university students, Widening Participation & Lifelong Learning, 12(3): 36-59.

Harrison, N. & McCaig, C. (2017). Examining the epistemology of impact and success of educational interventions using a reflective case study of university bursaries. British Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 290-309.

James, R. (2002). Socioeconomic Background and Higher Education Participation: An analysis of school students’ aspirations and expectations. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne.

Le, A. & Miller, P. (2005). Participation in Higher Education: Equity & Access?, The Economic Record, 81(253): 152-165

Naylor, R.; Baik, C.; & James, R. (2013). Developing a Critical Interventions Framework for advancing equity in Australian higher education. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Reed, R. & Hurd, B. (2014). A value beyond money? Assessing the impact of equity scholarships: from access to success, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.968541

Scull, S. & Cuthill, M. (2010). Engaged outreach: using community engagement to facilitate access to higher education for people from low socio-economic backgrounds, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(1), 59-74.

Wilks, J. & Wilson, K. (2012). Going on to uni? Access and participation in university for students from backgrounds of disadvantage, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1), 79-90.

Zacharias, N.; Cherednichenko, B.; Ryan, J.; George, K.;  Gasparini, L.; Kelly, M.; Mandre-Jackson, S.; Cairnduff, A.; & Sun, D. (2016). Moving beyond ‘acts of faith’: effective scholarships for equity students. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education: Perth.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.