The Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MoSHE) has recently announced that no less than 43 percent of students who will enroll in public universities in the academic year of 2019-20 will be female. This will be a significant development from last year’s figure of 37 percent and closer to government’s target of 45 percent planned for that year. It is perhaps the first time the government has come close to ensuring gender parity in higher education.
The success rate of similar plans has been far below government intentions in the past. During the planning period of the Education Sector Development Program, ESDP III (2004-05 to 2009-10), the government planned to increase female enrollment from 24 percent to 39 percent, but by the end of the period the achievement remained below 30 percent. During the fourth ESDP (2010 to 2014-15), the plan was to increase female enrollment from 29 percent to 40 percent, but the participation only approached 32 percent.
The latest drive to increase female participation in higher education might be an indication of the ministry’s resolve to bridge the persistent gap, but the broader goal of gender parity is still far from being achieved. Despite improvements made in the gender parity index in Ethiopian higher education from 0.22 in 1991 to the current 0.37, the figure still remains among the lowest in the world. Addressing this challenge requires a closer look at the lower levels of education and its root cause.
The Gender Fault Line
The continued gender imbalance at Ethiopian HEIs is partly explained by the increasing underrepresentation of females at the lower levels of education. This can be understood by closely studying current figures for gross enrollment rate, net enrollment rate and gender parity index that are often used to measure achievements at the lower levels.
GER compares the percentage of students (irrespective of age) at a particular grade level to the corresponding school-age population. NER looks at children who are of the correct age (in the Ethiopian context the proportion of 7-year-olds who enroll in grade 1) while GPI is the ratio of female to male students at a given level.
The 2018 Annual Education Statistics Abstract of the Ministry of Education shows that the GER for elementary level (Grades 1-8) in 2017-18 was 103.5 for female and 115 for male students, respectively. In the same year, the NER for males in elementary schools stood at 115 while that of females was 95.4. Gender parity at the elementary level was 0.90 and 0.89, indicating a limited gap in participation. The completion rate to eighth grade does not reflect a huge gap between male and female: in 2017-18 it was 55.9 for female and 59.5 for male students, respectively.
Secondary school appears to be the point where the education pipeline begins to leak significantly. The GER for grades 9-10 in 2017-18 was 45.2 percent for female students and 50.1 for males. The exceptions were two regions (Amhara and Addis Ababa), where more females are attending secondary education compared to males. The NER for females at secondary grades (grades 9-12) is around 31 percent, which indicates the challenges female students are facing in transitioning from primary to secondary education.
The fault line widens further after the grade 10 secondary school completion examination, when females begin to be significantly underrepresented. Out of a total of 1,205,789 students who sat for grade 10 examination in 2017-18, 47.2 percent were female. While 64.78 percent of those who took the exam scored the passing mark -- 2.0 or above -- female students constituted only 43.7 percent of those who passed.
The number of female students goes even lower after they take the university qualifying exam at the completion of grade 12. Among those who sat for the grade 12 exam in 2017-18, 52.9 percent scored 350 (the pass mark set for the year), and among these only 39.5 percent were female.
Currently, the percentage of female students within the public higher education sector stands at 37 percent at undergraduate and 18 percent at postgraduate level (MoE, 2018). While government proposes to increase the postgraduate participation to 35 percent during 2019-20, this appears to be unlikely since the figure for 2017-18 stood at around 24 percent.
The Why of Gender Imbalance
According to MoE (2015) gender disparities at the lower levels are widely attributed to gender roles and related household tasks, unfavorable cultural environment including negative attitudes toward girls’ education, harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, school-related gender-based violence, lack of adequate role models and distance to schools.
Some of these difficulties continue to be a challenge at the tertiary level. Factors such as misconceptions about gender-related academic ability, economic conditions, gender bias, sexual abuse and classroom interactions that favor male participation are often cited as challenges that young women face in adapting to university life.
Addressing the Root Causes
A variety of policies, strategies and special support schemes have been designed both at ministry and institutional levels to address gender disparity in educational institutions. However, as admitted by the ministry (2015) the implementation of these policies is “challenging, insufficiently supported, or insufficiently integrated with regional or local conditions affecting enrollment and completion” indicating the need to address the specific constraints female students face in general and in higher education in particular.
Addressing the challenges of gender parity through policy and practice is unavoidably a task that should begin in earnest at the lower levels of education, at the root cause of the problem and remains the key to improving the participation and success rate of female students at a higher level.
Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St. Mary's University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.