‘Shockingly low’ numbers of women damaging the future of higher education in South Asia
Policy-makers and universities in South Asia have been urged to take more positive action to tackle the “shockingly low” number of women holding senior positions in higher education in the region.
New research by the Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by the British Council, has found that while there has been a dramatic rise in the number of female students enrolled in South Asia’s universities, this has not been matched by an increase in women occupying senior leadership roles in the sector.
As South Asia approaches a crossroads regarding how to capitalise on its demographic boom, women must be better integrated in to higher education leadership positions if the region is to have a chance of fulfilling the vast and urgent requirements for the expansion of tertiary education systems.
The findings of the research will be debated by regional experts at the British Council’s ‘Going Global’ annual conference for leaders of international higher education, hosted this year in Miami between April 29 – May 1.
In India, the region’s biggest higher education market, the proportion of young women studying at university has doubled to 20 per cent, yet still only three per cent of Vice-Chancellors are women. By comparison, 14 per cent of UK Vice-Chancellors are women, whereas in Sweden, 43 per cent of heads of universities are women.
Women across South Asia are also far less likely than men to move on from undergraduate to postgraduate study, to enter academia, and to progress from lecturer to professor or become head of a department, the report ‘Dangerous Demographics: Women, Leadership, and the Looming Crisis in Higher Education’ finds. Women are underrepresented in all subjects and roles, especially in middle management and senior leadership positions.
The report argues that there are significant social and economic costs associated with this situation as demand for higher education among both men and women grows rapidly across South Asia.
Despite a great deal of rhetoric about the need to tackle the situation, women are still being excluded and discriminated against in universities, and as a result their skills and talent are being wasted.
Opinion is divided on the merits of the creation in some countries of women-only universities to help improve the situation. Supporters say this is an important route to allow more women to gain access to higher education and progress within it to leadership positions, while critics argue it is merely perpetuating the gender divide.
A large part of the problem has to do with the fact that men dominate all decision-making bodies. Another is the politicisation of higher education in South Asia, with positions often awarded according to political affiliations rather than merit. A third is that women often do not pursue a career in higher education due to social and family pressures.
Affirmative action in the form of ensuring an equal gender balance on selection committees is seen as key to breaking the glass ceiling.
Dr Louise Morley, Director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, suggests there are three key areas where more action and intervention are needed to bring about a change:
“Fix the woman” – encouraging women to be more competitive and assertive, perhaps through mentoring schemes
“Fix the organisation” – introducing gender equality policies, process and practices; challenging discriminatory structures; and conducting gender audits
“Fix the knowledge” – identifying bias where it exists and changing the curriculum to address this
Michelle Potts, British Council Director of Education in South Asia, said: “More girls and women are benefitting from increased access to primary, secondary and tertiary education, but the battle is far from won. Looking at the leadership of the tertiary sector, the burning question remains: where have all the women gone? Networking, international experience and support for developing research are all important elements in supporting female academics and leaders and it is these areas that women find themselves excluded from essentially a boys’ club. Social change and the changing education environment mean that we need the role models of successful women higher education leaders to inspire and lead the next generation of female students; otherwise we risk losing the potential talent that it possesses.”
Kshanika Hirimburegama, Chairperson of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka, said: “As a female, I find the topic a very interesting one: the role of women in higher education in South Asia, the new leadership paradigm and barriers to success, and the best practice models from South Asia and the UK – topics which I feel are very relevant to Sri Lanka at this point in time.”