Women in higher education: A long way to go

As much as there is a reason to celebrate the overall increase in women participation in higher education, the averages hide a plethora of gaps
Last Updated : 16 July 2021, 00:55 IST
Last Updated : 16 July 2021, 00:55 IST

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The Ministry of Education recently released the AISHE (All India Survey on Higher Education) 2019-20 report, according to which women in India now hold a 49% share in total enrolment in higher education.

However, it is important to go beyond the headline numbers and analyse the performance at the micro-level. Women in India are not a homogenous category and their education journey is shaped by socio-religious context. The socio-cultural milieu of Indian society exerts influences on all aspects of a woman's life. Against all odds, women in India achieve a high echelon on the educational front. Women from all sections of society have entered the realm of higher education with full gusto. At all the national-level, there has been an upsurge of 18% in female enrolment in higher education from 2015 to 2019.

Among all the categories of women, the achievements of Muslim women is highly commendable. They have broken the shackles of exclusion and 40% more women have enrolled in higher education in 2019-20 as compared to 2015-16. Similarly, the SC-ST women, for whom schools had barred their doors for many centuries, have also recorded high improvement. ST women increased their enrollment by 38% and OBC women by 30%.

However, we need to take this news with a pinch of salt. Is increasing enrolment enough? Can we just sit back and toast to the fact that we are very close to bridging the gender gap in higher education? The answer to these questions is an unequivocal no. As much as there is a reason to celebrate the overall increase in women participation in higher education, the averages hide a plethora of gaps. The news coverage has ignored the misses. The share of Muslim and ST women in higher education, despite improvements, is still abysmally low at 2.7% and 2.8%, respectively. SC women still hold only a 7.3% share. Women in the PWD category occupy only 0.1% of the total higher education seats.

Another issue towards which attention needs to be drawn is the persistent low share of women in institutions of national importance. In these institutions, the share of women is 25% while men occupy the rest. In the 2015 to 2019 period, women’s share has increased by mere 3 percentage points.

The enrolment pattern to undergraduate level (highest numbers of students are enrolled at undergraduate level) seems to follow a gender stereotype where some courses are deemed to be appropriate for women while others are for men. In Arts, the share of women is 52.9%; in science, it is 51.7% and in commerce, it is 48.8%.

Although the share of women students is close to men in higher education, their share in the so-called “masculine subjects” such as engineering and technology is depressingly low at 29.2%.

It has been pointed out by various reports that the participation of women in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in India has been low. The government has taken various measures to address the low enrolments of women in technical education. One such measure is the supernumerary seat scheme in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) wherein 20% of seats are reserved for female candidates.

While there is a case to celebrate the improvements in the gross enrolment levels of women in higher education, the devil in the details cannot be ignored and it is vital that the gaps are addressed through policy interventions to ensure that the women are not left behind.

Further, the policymakers also need to take cognizance of a lack of transmission of higher participation of women in education to high participation in the labour force. India is among the five worst-performing countries in the world in the domain of economic participation of women. There is a need for a socio-cultural change where society recognises the intrinsic and instrumental values of education in the lives of women. Measures such as “Gender inclusion Fund” and “Special Education Zones” (proposed in NEP-2020) for inclusion of socially and economically disadvantaged groups can be a gamechanger.

(The writer is a senior research fellow at Institute for Social and Economic Change)

Published 15 July 2021, 20:07 IST

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