Did you know that as far back as the 1970s – an era when most of Europe and North America was only just waking up to the idea of mass higher education – that more women than men were enrolled in universities in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? And did you also know that these impressively high levels of female participation have been maintained in the post-Soviet period?
These were two of the findings from my recent study comparing how Central Asian women have fared in higher education since 1960. I decided to undertake the study after another paper I wrote last year showed that whilst female students in Tajikistan are more likely to be the subject of higher education reform efforts, they are least likely of all the possible stakeholder groups (faculty, students, government, international organizations) to have a say in the direction of that reform.
As a result, I decided to explore this in further detail through the lens of female participation in higher education between the Soviet era and the current period. I should be clear that I don’t view participation as a proxy for quality of education, persistence (do the students complete the education?) or post-study destination, all of which might tell us more about female empowerment than participation, which is more connected to gender parity. However, at least my study puts Central Asian women at the forefront, which is more than I can say for other studies!
The other point about my study that stands out is the use of two different datasets – the first from the USSR State Statistics Committee covering the period 1960-1989 and the second from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for data from 2000 to date (I couldn’t find any data for the 1990s, which does of course limit the study as it was a period of immense upheaval and you can’t see this reflected in the data). I believe that this is the first time these two datasets have been cross-hatched to analyse gender and higher education in Central Asia.
As you can see from the graph below, there is a very distinct difference between female enrollment rates in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the other three Central Asian republics.
The experience of Uzbekistan was of greater gains towards female equality than Tajikistan, starting from higher participation rates in the 1960s that were more or less sustained throughout the Soviet period. Only Turkmenistan appears to bear a semblance to trends in Tajikistan during the Soviet period, although here too the starting point for female participation in 1960 was higher by 7% than in Tajikistan.
The worrying drop in female participation in the early 2000s in Tajikistan appears to have been remedied in recent years: if the current growth trend continues to be consistent at around 2% per year, then it is feasible to hypothesize that parity in enrollment by gender in Tajikistan could be achieved within the next six years.
2015 data for Uzbekistan is not available but between 2005 and 2010 the picture was similar to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with a 1% drop in female participation but from a much lower starting point. It is hard to offer any detailed interpretation for Turkmenistan where data is only available for one of the time points; however, there was a 5% decrease in enrollment between 1989 and 2015.
So: that’s an overview of my data, my rationale, and some of the findings. What do you think? What important stories does the data tell us that I’ve missed? Why is female participation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan so much higher? Could the prospects for Tajikistan be as tentatively optimistic as I’ve suggested (and wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something positive to say about Tajikistan for once)?