Education enrolment trends of women in the Middle East

A seminar at the recent NAFSA conference revealed that increasing female enrolment is one of the big stories in US higher education at the moment, with women accounting for 57% of undergraduate enrolment and 58% of graduate school seats in American institutions.

This reflects a broader observation from a 2013 OECD report that found the gender balance in higher education is shifting slightly in favour of women across most OECD and G20 countries. As we reported last year, the OECD says of the 2011 freshmen class: “52% of new university entrants in 2011 were women – the exceptions to this trend being found only in Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, where the number of men beginning their university studies still outnumbered their female counterparts.”

With some variations by market, the trend applies in the Middle East as well. In fact, in some Gulf States female enrolment tracks well ahead of male participation in higher education. Qatar, where there are roughly twice as many women enrolled in universities than men, is a notable example in this respect. Women are not only more likely to enroll in university programmes in Qatar, they are also more likely to complete them: 60% of the graduates from Qatari universities are female.

On the one hand, these are indicators of accessibility and success for women studying in Qatari institutions. However, they also reflect broader disparities still at work in the Gulf region. University studies are equally available to men in Qatar but the lack of a university qualification does not appear to impair the career prospects of men, many of whom simply enter the workforce directly after secondary school. Women, for whom senior positions and further training opportunities are still less available, appear more inclined to pursue higher education as a way of strengthening their career prospects.

They also, however, prefer to do so at home. A recent Doha News item notes:

“When it comes to furthering their education, female Qatari students were much more likely to remain here than to take up overseas opportunities, reflecting national customs and traditions.”

An editorial piece from Al-Fanar adds a broader perspective on women’s participation in education: “In general there is a lag in women’s participation in higher education throughout the Middle East and North Africa, though the gender gap has closed dramatically in recent years. Algeria is now at complete parity and Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates all show slightly higher enrolment rates for women than men.

Yemen appears to be the furthest behind of the Arab countries in granting women access to higher education. The country had 47,000 male university students and 15,000 female students in 2011, according to the latest statistics available. ‘Only elite families send their daughters to schools and universities,’ says Wahiba Fara’a, a Yemeni politician who was also the country’s first female minister of state for human rights in 2001.

Conversely, in some Arab countries, higher education seems to be viewed as essentially a female sphere, with men assuming they will get a job in the government or the Army.”

Equal access to education

Al-Fanar’s observations are formed partly against the backdrop of UNESCO’s Education for All initiative, a global effort to improve access to education by addressing systemic disparities. Education for All has several core goals, including “Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality.”

Progress toward this goal, however, has been slow and observers continue to call for specific programmes to address gender gaps in access to education at all levels. A 2012 UNESCO regional report for the Middle East said, “Achieving equal participation for both boys and girls in primary and secondary education has been a challenge for most the countries. The 2005 gender target has been missed and most likely difficult to achieve by 2015. Indeed, only Syria and Oman met this target in 2010.”

Even so, growing participation by women and girls at all levels of the education system stands to have profound social and economic impacts across the region, as well as on evolving study abroad market trends. As the Qatari example reflects, cultural or systemic biases that discourage female participation in study abroad remain. However, we have also noted that other major initiatives in the region, notably Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), can be a catalyst for opening up new opportunities for women to study abroad.

In fact, the Saudi Gazette reported recently on the growing demand for language travel among Saudi women. The Gazette indicates that the demand has been strengthening both among female secondary and university students, and that the students are mainly interested in study destinations in Europe and Asia.

Women and language travel

For the moment, it appears that much of this burgeoning demand is being addressed by group study tours organised by Saudi agencies that develop group packages in collaboration with language training providers abroad.

“Many travel and tourism agencies are providing packages to meet the demand, while assuring that they are not violating Ministry of Higher Education regulations,” adds the Gazette. “According to these agencies, many women prefer to travel in groups with relatives or friends and want to reside with families that do not have sons.”

Such reports are early indicators of a shifting marketplace in the Middle East with respect to the participation of women and girls in study abroad – a trend that stands to be strengthened and expanded in the years ahead as persistent gender disparities in education access are further addressed.



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