Universities need more women students, says World Bank

The World Bank has called on the Afghan government to increase the proportion of women enrolled in universities. Women currently make up just 19% of students, according to a new report on Afghanistan’s higher education – a decline in the male-female ratio in universities compared to a decade ago even though overall numbers have increased.

“Increasing female enrolent in universities is a top priority for the future development of higher education,” said the report completed last year and launched jointly by the World Bank and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul on 30 August.

According to the World Bank and the ministry, higher education participation in the country is among the lowest in the world, even compared to other post-conflict countries and those with a similar per capita income. The gross enrolment ratio is around 5%.

The total student participation in higher education grew more than three-fold from 2002 to 2012, to around 150,000 students. The proportion of women enrolled also increased over this period, but at a slower rate compared to men, so the proportion of female students declined from 30% in 2002 to 19% in 2012.

“Besides lack of proper infrastructure, low enrolment of women in our universities is related to several social and security issues,” Dr Shaheer Nesari, a senior advisor to Afghanistan’s higher education minister and government coordinator for the World Bank’s Strengthening Higher Education Programme, told University World News.

Raihana Popalzai, vice-chancellor (academic) of Kabul University, told University World News: “The higher education system in Afghanistan suffered badly in decades-old wars which not only led to brain drain, decline in quality and infrastructural damage but also resulted in a decrease in the number of students – especially women students, who feared loss of life and discontinued their studies.”

World Bank education specialist Dr Harsha Aturupane said that Afghanistan needed to improve university infrastructure and devise plans to improve the confidence of female students. In particular, he urged the government to increase the security of female students by building well-guarded campus hostels to reduce travelling time and minimise security risk.

The report Higher Education in Afghanistan: An emerging mountainscape states: “Afghanistan will need to provide facilities that female students and staff consider very important, such as adequate sanitation on campus, secure residential facilities, and safe transportation for female students.”

With World Bank funding of over US$70 million through its Strengthening Higher Education Programme, or SHEP, university infrastructure and governance systems have been restored, quality assurance and accreditation systems strengthened and curricula for all universities revised.

Started in 2005 with initial funding of US$40 million, SHEP is expected to continue with additional grants. Aturupane told the Afghan Pajhwok news agency that the World Bank had invested US$70 million in the higher education sector over the past eight years and was ready to provide more over the next five years.

The report also suggested that the ministry connect Afghan universities with institutions in South Asian countries. Nesari said Afghanistan was already developing partnerships with universities in the region, including in India and Pakistan.

The partnerships included exchange programmes with Indian universities. Several thousand Afghan students are studying in India and Pakistan on scholarships set up by the governments of these South Asian nations.

The World Bank suggested increasing university links in the region.

Afghanistan is currently implementing a five-year National Higher Education Strategic Plan, or NHESP, for which the World Bank, USAID and UNESCO conducted participatory consultations in 2010.

The plan provides clear policy and strategic direction to improve higher education quality, equity and access. The overall budget requested from local and external resources for the implementation of NHESP is around US$500 million.