The number of female students in Nigeria has risen almost seven-fold since independence in 1960 and women could soon outnumber their male counterparts in the country's universities, according to experts. Recently released statistics show the proportion of female students rose from 7.7% in 1960 to 45% in 2009.
Research and interest in gender in higher education has grown as the number of women students has increased and the gap between the genders in subjects such as law, engineering, medicine and pharmacy has closed.
In a paper titled 'Impact of Economic Depression on the Education of Male/female Undergraduates in Nigeria', Aina Sola, a lecturer in the sociology department at Lagos State University, details the gradual rise of female enrolment in universities.
He says that in 1960, 7.7% or 196 of the country's 2,545 university students were female. By 1990, women comprised 27% of nearly 181,000 students admitted to universities.
The number of female students has continued to rise steadily with women accounting for 41.73% of the student population by 2001 and 43.09% by 2005. The National Universities Commission, the regulatory body in charge of Nigerian universities, says 45% of students admitted in 2008-09 were female.
The Joint Admissions Matriculation Board, the government agency responsible for the competitive examinations that govern admission to tertiary institutions in Nigeria, revealed that "the number of female applicants rose from 348,619 in 2008 to 514,610 in 2009".
Figures obtained from individual universities show the same trend of rapid female progression.
At Nigeria's oldest institution, the University of Ibadan, which was established in 1948, the gender gap has closed significantly in the last 25 years. In 1986-87 the student population was 8,770, with 3,230 being female. By 2007-08 the student gender gap had narrowed to 11,387 male and 7,456 female students.
A similar trend can be seen at the University of Lagos. The university admitted 11,713 students in 1986-87, of whom 3,359 were female. By 2008-09 there were 20,909 male and 17,920 female students admitted.
Male-to-female ratios are uneven in different parts of Nigeria. In the south-eastern region, the gap between male and female students has closed.
Rebecca Samuel, an academic in the sociology department at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, says: "Parents from the poor urban and rural zones encourage men to go into petty trading at a very early age to look after their extended families. They send females to university while the boys' dream is to become big-time businessmen."
The picture is different in northern Nigeria. Universities in Muslim communities record a very high percentage of male students. Girls tend to be married off early by their parents, so both Koranic and Western-type tertiary institutions have a high number of male students.
The vast majority of private universities are in southern Nigeria, especially in the south-west, where higher education is a vital part of the economy and going to university is seen as the norm. There is at least one university every 50 kilometres in the region, mainly populated by the Yoruba.
Yoruba areas have the highest number of universities of all ethnic groups in Africa. The liberal and egalitarian tradition of the Yoruba encourages the education of women at all levels so there are more women in private universities.
In the 1960s and 1970s certain academic subjects were the exclusive preserve of male students. Since the late 1980s, the situation has dramatically changed. Female students are found in all disciplines and are competing well with their male counterparts.
This has led to predictions by some experts that women will eventually predominate in Nigeria's universities.
Michael Adedayo, a lecturer and educational psychologist at the University of Benin in the Niger Delta Region, says: "One of the fundamental changes in Nigeria's tertiary education is the rapid increase in the female population.
"If this trend continues we may witness a preponderance of female students. This is not surprising because there are more women than men in Nigeria."
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