Women have made remarkable gains in South African higher education - a situation that began in 1995 when, for the first time, more women enrolled at university
than men. Today, that has become an established trend with nearly 56% of all
Between 2000 and 2007, as the vice-chancellors' association, Higher Education South Africa, told Parliament in August, the number of women students in public higher education institutions grew by 5.5% a year - against overall undergraduate enrolment growth of 4.9%.
Higher Education Monitor: The state of higher education in South Africa, published this month by the statutory Council on Higher Education, reveals the proportion of female students in public higher education rose from a minority in 1994 to 53% in 2000 and 55.5% in 2007 - in a country where women make up 52% of the population.
But female students are represented differently depending on the institution, with the lowest proportion (51%) in universities of technology, 56% in 'traditional' universities and 57% in 'comprehensive' institutions that combine academic and polytechnic-type provision.
There are also variations by field of study similar to those found elsewhere in the world. According to Higher Education Monitor, men continue to dominate in science, engineering and technology where they made up 57% of enrolments in 2007. In all other fields of study, more women are enrolled than men.
Thus, women comprised 56% of students in business, commerce and management, 59% in the human and social sciences, and 73% in education. The report points out that areas with the greatest gender imbalances are engineering and engineering technology where only 24% of students are women, and health care and health sciences where only 32% of students are men.
Government statistics also show that women are more successful in their studies: in 2007, 59% of graduates were women despite them representing only 55.5% of all enrolments. Only in the fields of science, engineering and technology do more men graduate - and even then, it is only by a small margin.
Also, slightly more women than men are enrolled in postgraduate programmes, according to Higher Education Monitor, with women being somewhat more successful in completing postgraduate studies.
But they are still in the minority at the doctoral level and only 42% of doctoral graduates in 2007 were female - though the proportion was up significantly from 38% in 2004. The proportion of female doctoral students was 35% in business, commerce and management, 40% in SET fields, 43% in human and social sciences, and 53% in education.
Most research in South Africa is conducted by men - predominantly white males - though this picture too is changing. The National Research Foundation runs a system that involves individual researchers being rated by their national and international peers. Among the 1,606 'rated' researchers working in universities and museums in 2006, 25% were women - up from 18% in 2002.
Among staff in public higher education, women have outnumbered men since 2006 and have been slowly making inroads in traditionally male-dominated areas. By 2007, 36% of senior managers and 43% of academics were women - though only 25% of professors and associate professors were female.
Policy is now geared to supporting women students in fields and at levels where they remain in the minority, and at raising the proportions of women in research, senior academic jobs and higher education management through institutional and national gender equity policies and programmes.
But amid massive efforts to ensure racial and gender equity in higher education one concern is missing: nobody seems worried about the declining proportions of male students.
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