Retention and Equity

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.

In tandem with the literature that focuses on attrition is a dual or complementary focus on retention for equity group students. Issues with retention are evident across equity groups in higher education (HE), especially among Indigenous students, students with disability and rural and remote students. In their work on developing a critical interventions framework, Naylor, Baik & James (2013) show despite increasing numbers of equity students, retention and success have remained generally the same (96% of domestic students overall), although this is not the case for Indigenous (85% retention; 81% success) or rural and remote students (91% retention; 94% success). In addition, Asmar, Page & Radloff’s (2015) study on the engagement of Indigenous students in HE show that Indigenous students are still underrepresented, and are more likely to withdraw from HE institutions due to factors including financial pressure, conflict between family and studies, discrimination and mis-expectations. The authors therefore argue that a more nuanced understanding of who Indigenous students are is needed, stating that ‘much more needs to be known about who Indigenous students are, with whom they interact, why they may leave and how they may be utilising Indigenous centres’ (p. 28). On the other hand, Kilpatrick, Johns, Barnes, McLennan, Fischer & Magnussen (2016) who examined the relationship between supports and adjustments for students with disability, and their retention and success in HE, contend that the success and retention of students with disability are ‘consistently lower’ (p. 45) than the total student population. They assert that HE institutions should therefore develop strategies to address this issue, with more research conducted in developing better methods of disclosure, and better ways to support students with mental health issues and autism (Kilpatrick et al., 2016). Apart from that,  in their study on the social, cultural and locational factors influencing the low post-compulsory retention rates of remote island students, Stewart & Abbott-Chapman (2011) identify dualities which contribute towards students’ decisions to disengage or persist in HE, which include the following: location and displacement, freedom and lack of freedom, fear and lack of fear, familiarity and lack of familiarity, support and lack of support and mastery and lack of mastery (Stewart & Abbott-Chapman, 2011). Stewart & Abbott-Chapman (2011) therefore assert that rural and metropolitan education should not be regarded as ‘separate and unequal, but as interconnected and of equal value, and resourced by governments as such’ (p. 12).

Despite the varying problems influencing the retention rates of students across the equity groups in HE, the literature also highlights findings on factors that support the retention of these students in HE institutions. In their study on the success factors for retention of first-year special entry Aboriginal students of an Australian metropolitan university, Day & Nolde (2009) identified that the most significant factor influencing the retention rates of Aboriginal students was the support provided and the sense of belonging experienced by the students. This was followed by career goals and personal achievement, and the students’ sense of identity (Day & Nolde, 2009). The authors therefore highlighted the significance of the Indigenous centre, noting that ‘further tertiary sector investment in these units is fundamental to enhancing student progress and retention’ (p. 149). On the other hand, for low SES students, Karimshah, Wyder, Henman, Tay, Capelin, & Short (2013) identified informal social support networks and self-agency as significant factors impacting retention. Findings from their study revealed that 33 out of 53 respondents mentioned the importance of friends, family and/or a partner as a significant influence on retention, while almost 50% of low SES participants mentioned a strong sense of self-agency as a key influence on retention (Karimshah et al., 2013). Apart from that, McKendry, Wright & Stevenson’s (2014) study on the attrition and retention of nursing and midwifery students in HE indicated that the major factors supporting retention include role models (who are inspirations for their profession), staff and peers.

There are also many examples in the literature of strategies intended to enhance retention (often positioned in line with increasing success), such as financial support (Carson, 2010; Reed & Hurd, 2014; Zacharias et al., 2016); on-campus accommodation programs (see Burge, 2012;), access schemes (for example MAPS to Success in Christensen & Evamy, 2011), and mentoring programs (for example AIME, see Harwood et al., 2015; Herts Success in Farenga, 2017). Naylor and Mifsud (2020) also propose the use of a structural inequality framework, which frames the problem of social inclusion within the ‘locus of control of the institution’, which increases the likelihood of effective change. They also argue that the three types of structural inequality identified in the framework (vertical, horizontal and internal) are highly effective in identifying and distinguishing barriers to access, consequently allowing for more focused policy solutions. However, overall, other scholars have argued that there are limitations in these strategies and initiatives, and that they are hampered by a lack of institutional and national cohesion (for example, Abbott-Chapman, 2011; Thomas, 2014). As Thomas (2014) argues, there is “little evidence of any theoretically sound, coherent or comprehensive plan to address the challenges and opportunities [including retention] created by increased percentages of students from low-SES backgrounds” (p.818), although he does note that there are pockets of excellent practice across the country.


Abbott-Chapman, J. (2011). Making the most of the mosaic: facilitating post-school transitions to higher education of disadvantaged students, The Australian Educational Researcher, 38(1): 57-71.

Asmar, C.; Page, S.; & Radloff, A. (2015). Exploring anomalies in Indigenous student engagement: findings from a national Australian survey of undergraduates, Higher Education Research & Development, 34(1), 15–29.

Burge, L. (2012). Infinite possibilities: exploring opportunities for non-traditional students to become global citizens, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 13: 6-18.

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.

Christensen, L. & Evamy, S. (2011). MAPs to Success: Improving the First Year Experience of alternative entry mature age students, The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 2(2): 35-48.

Day, D. & Nolde, R. (2009). Arresting the decline in Australian indigenous representation in university: Student experience as a guide, Equal Opportunities International, 28(2), 135–161.

Farenga, S. (2017). Students on a journey: an institutional case study of a widening participation success and retention programme, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 19(2), 142-156.

Harwood, V.; McMahon, S.; O’Shea, S.; Bodkin-Andrews, G.; & Priestly, A. (2015). Recognising aspiration: the AIME program’s effectiveness in inspiring Indigenous young people’s participation in schooling and opportunities for further education and employment, The Australian Educational Researcher, 42: 217-236.

Karimshah, A., Wyder, M., Henman, P., Tay, D., Capelin, E. & Short, P. (2013). Overcoming adversity among low SES students: A study of strategies for retention. Australian Universities Review, 55(2), 5-14.

Kilpatrick, S., Johns, S., Barnes, R., McLennan, D., Fischer, S. & Magnussen, K. (2016). Exploring the Retention and Success of Students with Disability. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Masika, R. & Jones, J. (2015). Building student belonging and engagement: insights into higher education students’ experiences of participating and learning together. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(2), 138-150. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2015.1122585

McKendry, S.; Wright, M.; & Stevenson, K. (2014). Why here and why stay? Students’ voices on the retention strategies of a widening participation university, Nurse Education Today, 34, 872–877.

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.

Naylor, R. & Mifsud, N. (2020). Towards a structural inequality framework for student retention and success, Higher Education Research & Development, 39(2), 259-272, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1670143

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


Stewart, A. & Abbott-Chapman, J. (2011). Remote Island Students’ Post-Compulsory

Retention: Emplacement and Displacement as Factors Influencing Educational Persistence or Discontinuation, Journal of Research in Rural Education, 26(6), 1–17.

Thomas, G. (2014). Closing the policy-practice gap for low-SES students in higher education: the pedagogical challenge, Higher Education Research & Development, 33(4): 807-820.

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.