Given their disproportionate presence, women’s enrollment in higher education has been a source of concern worldwide. However, enrollment is significantly more unequal in developing countries where women are constrained by socio-economic and socio-cultural constructs and rarely have the opportunity to attend college.
Interestingly, this narrative is eroding, as women’s enrollment in higher education has increased nearly twice as fast as male enrollment over the last four decades. Increased equity and access to education, enhanced income potential, the international thrust to narrow down the gender gap at all levels of education have fostered this change.
Winds of equity in higher education: Global perspective
Today, women constitute the majority of higher education students in 114 countries, as per the report published by IIE.
The uptick in women’s enrollment in higher education has also increased their global academic mobility, albeit at a sluggish pace.
According to a study1, 48 percent of women pursued higher education abroad in 2012, up from 44 percent in 1999.
Although the data available is sparse, which helps us understand the intentions, motivations, and challenges of prospective female international students, certain push and pull factors have been identified that motivate women to study abroad.
These factors are primarily driven by the region, socio-cultural, and socio-economic factors.
Economic growth is a significant accelerant of gender equity. Middle-income countries’ economic development has been a powerful influence in boosting student outbound mobility.
In Asia, China and India have emerged as significant examples of the link between economic growth and greater enrollment of female students in higher education, both domestically and internationally.
Another critical factor that drives women to pursue higher education abroad is the socio-cultural constructs in their home country that deprive them of the opportunity to pursue a degree of their choice.
For example, in traditional societies, the gender stereotype related to STEM education discourages women from pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programmes. This has prompted a large number of female students to study overseas.
Significantly, many countries have experienced cultural shifts, sometimes aided by economic booms, as in the case of China, resulting in high percentages of female education and increasing labor-force participation domestically.
Women are gaining better access to education, are individually-driven, and moving abroad to pursue quality higher education.
Moving the needle in India
As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20, the gross enrolment ratio of female students stands at 27.3%, more than that of male students, which is 26.9%.
This indicates an overall increase of 18% in the gross enrolment ratio of female students in higher education from 2015-16 to 2019-20.
The survey findings also reveal a sharp rise in female student enrolment at MA, MCom, and MSc levels in the last five years.
India registered improvement in the Gender Parity Index (GPI) in higher education in 2019-20 by moving to 1.01 against 1.00 in 2018-19.
Improvements in GPI indicate the progress that the female student population of the eligible age group has made in terms of relative access to higher education as compared to male students.
The positive figures indicate the socio-economic mobility of Indian families that mirror enhanced opportunities for female students in higher education.
Research corroborates how the upward socio-economic mobility of families leads to an increase in the number of women students pursuing higher education overseas.
According to a study conducted to understand the relationship between gender, study abroad, and parents’ social class (proxied by education), in India, female students who hail from highly educated parental backgrounds are more likely to be “allowed” or “encouraged” to study abroad.
The study also underlined the strong relationship between women students and their mothers’ education, with 80% of female students having university-educated mothers, compared to 54% of the male students studying abroad.
The gender gap in the STEM field is acute, with less than 30% of the world’s researchers being women. This under-representation is a global phenomenon.
As per the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), women in India constituted less than 15% of the researchers in STEM. This figure is abysmal and concerning, as India tops globally in producing female STEM graduates. The paradox is stark that India has STEM graduates but not researchers.
But times are swinging, and data bears testimony to the increasing number of outbound female students studying STEM in the US, especially at the master’s level.
The Indian government is also striving to close the STEM gender gap. One significant step in this direction is the Indo-US Fellowship for women in STEMM, which provides an opportunity to Indian women scientists, engineers, and technologists to undertake collaborative research in premier institutes in the US for 3-6 months.
Leap of equity
Thus, upward economic mobility and emancipation from biased socio-cultural constructs are helping female students gain access to higher education abroad in top universities.
Further, concentrated efforts like targeted scholarships and fellowships funded by governments, multilateral organizations, and private entities have opened avenues for women to pursue higher education overseas.
However, closing the gender gap that prevails in the international mobility of female students in higher education and particularly in STEM studies will necessitate additional thrust and coordinated efforts from all stakeholders; individuals, society, and governments.