Do Student Support Systems (E.G. Student Scholarships) Increase the Level of Equity in Higher Education?

There are a number of national policies in place to increase the access and participation of under-represented groups in higher education. However, before examining these, it is worth summarizing how access to public universities is regulated.

The first legal condition for all candidates is to pass the national examination (baccalaureate). Afterwards, they can choose to either enrol in a private university and pay tuition fees, or in a public university, where they can benefit from a free (state-financed) place or pay tuition fees, based on their entrance grade. At university level, the state-financed study places are distributed to the top students at the end of the admission examinations organized by universities according to a general framework, approved by the Minister of Education. When calculating the general admission grade, the universities can also use as criteria the baccalaureate exam grades or grades from university-organized admission exams which some institutions run independently of the state exam (for testing knowledge and cognitive capacities). Several groups of students can obtain specially-financed free study places: Roma students, students from foster homes or ethnic Romanians from abroad. In all cases, the distribution of public funds to cover the students' educational costs is merit-based.

Regarding the participation of under-represented groups, the main policies in place for their financial support and/or integration, outside the need based aid, are: subsidies for student dorms and canteens, subsidies for local and national transportation and free medical and psychological assistance.

The Romanian Student Support System: The Case of Student Scholarships

The Romanian student aid system was first regulated in the late 1990s[1] and its provisions were confirmed with some minor changes by the more recent Education Law (1/2011).[2] There are two main types of student scholarships, one merit-based and the other one based on social criteria, i.e. need-based aid. While the general criteria for awarding scholarships are regulated nationally, the system allows each university to define and implement their own additional criteria. All legal documents concerning the student aid system (National Education Law, secondary legislation) reiterate the following major objectives:

• for merit-based scholarships, to encourage learning, academic performance, and excellence;

• for need-based aid, to secure financial support for students from low income


According to the Education Law, the same student may receive both types of scholarships, if they meet the eligibility criteria. These scholarships are awarded for an entire academic year and, with a few exceptions, that includes the entire calendar year where medical aid, academic performance scholarships and aid for orphans are concerned.

The monthly lump sum provided by the government to universities for the purpose of scholarships is calculated by multiplying the fixed amount granted by the government per budgeted student place (currently 69 lei, i.e. approx. 16 Euro) by the number of budgeted places allocated for that university. Universities can supplement the scholarship fund from their own income. At national level, the scholarship fund is not divided into separate funds for need-based aid and merit scholarships; rather the universities themselves decide how the funds are divided between these categories, as well as the amounts and the number of available scholarships. Institutional behaviour in allocating these funds between merit and need-based awards may therefore be seen as a proxy for the importance given to equity by Romanian universities.

Before discussing how Romanian universities allocate the scholarship fund for different policy objectives, some comments about the perceived hierarchy between the need-based aid and the merit scholarships are perhaps in order. Firstly, one of the most common misconceptions recorded during our interviews with key stakeholders at universities is that the need-based awards are somehow second-rate scholarships and should be of lower value than the merit scholarships. This is despite the fact that the Education Law 1/2011 clearly states that the social scholarship should cover minimum subsistence costs, i.e. for housing in a dormitory and for three basic meals daily. In consequence, though the CNFIS[3] annually calculates a national monthly standard for need-based aid (the latest calculation is 575 lei or about 130 Euro per month), in fact universities provide much smaller awards varying between 25 and 60 % of the national standard. Their argument for keeping the awards value low is that to provide higher sums would imply that the awards were of greater importance and prestige than merit scholarships. To raise need awards to the required level would require them to also increase the size of merit awards which, considering the limited amount of money received from the state, would only allow for a very small number of students to receive merit scholarships.

Although there is a trend at the level of national student federations towards an increased social sensitivity (Proteasa and Miroiu 2013), the hierarchy between needand merit-based aid has not yet changed significantly, and the pattern established in the late 1990s has remained relatively constant over time. So, while meritocracy and social support are not necessarily dichotomous (Haj 2014), the current scholarship system forces universities to choose between rewarding academic performance and supporting the low-income students. The issue of prioritizing equity on the public agenda was analyzed by Koen Geven, who links this attitude of academics to communist reminiscences: “it is either a non-issue or a communist issue” (Geven 2012), an attitude which creates a difficult political environment in which to promote need-based aid.

  • [1] Order no. 558/1998 on amendments to Annexes 1 and 2 of Order no. 455/1997 establishing general criteria for scholarships and other forms of support for pupils, students and trainees in public education, day courses. For the general context of setting up this system, see Proteasa and Miroiu (2013, pp. 177–180)
  • [2] Education Law 1/2011, art. 12, paragraphs (2) and (4), art. 223, paragraphs (9), (10), (11)
  • [3] Further in the article we will use CNFIS for the National Council for Higher Education Funding
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