DOHA—With opportunities to access world-class higher education and procure generous financial aid, an increasing number of Qatari students are pursuing higher education in their country.
But rising enrollment isn’t reducing a persistent gender gap, educators say, as more women than men get university degrees in Qatar and across the Gulf region.
Some nascent efforts to tackle the issue in Qatar—and elsewhere—are underway, although educators say more needs to be done to combat the problem.
“It’s important to realize that Qatar needs every individual,” said Darwish Al-Emadi, director of Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute. With a large number of expatriates working in the country, Qataris account for only a small percentage of the work force. “So, each of us is important and has a role to play in the economy. The more educated youngsters are, the better for the country.”
Last year, 989 female students compared to 280 male students received their degrees from the state-run Qatar University, which has the highest concentration of Qatari students. Al-Emadi said the phenomenon is not new and that women have always outnumbered men at the university by roughly 70 percent.
But Qatar’s government started taking note recently: Increased male enrollment in higher education was identified in 2011 as a main goal of the nation’s education strategy.
“We pinpointed the gender disparity problem,” said Aziza Al-Saadi, director of the Office of Education Policy Analysis and Research. While initiatives are not yet in place on the ground, “we are at the phase of shaping a detailed approach to solve the problem.”
One strategy identified by the approach is strengthening technical and vocational education at the university level. It also identifies career guidance at all levels of schooling as a way to help solve the gender gap, Al-Saadi said.
Today, most career guidance programs at Qatari schools don’t specifically target boys. There also don’t appear to be any programs or outreach efforts by Qatar’s universities aimed specifically at attracting male students.
“We do not specifically have anything geared towards Qatari males,” said Damian Dourado, manager of Pre-College Programs at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. “But through the applications and through the programs that I do I always pay close attention to the numbers that I have and the gender ratio to make sure that we have enough males.”
Mohammed Al-Hor, a Qatari business administration student at Carnegie Mellon, attended Carnegie Mellon’s pre-college program two years ago. Now he is mentoring Qatari high school students who want to enroll.
“They always ask about the type and amount of work,” Al-Hor said. “They ask me if they will need to cut their social life if they join the college or if those who studied an Arabic curriculum will have a problem joining an all-English [language] university.”
Concerns over social life aside, educators and others say a slew of other factors contribute to lower male than female enrollment rates at Qatar’s universities. One is that men have more opportunities than women to study abroad due to conservative social norms that sometimes restrict women from traveling independently.
Qatari social entrepreneur, Khalid Al-Mohannadi, said lack of commitment is another reason. Many young Qatari men don’t believe in the importance of higher education since they can enter the labor market without post-secondary qualifications. Plus, the current educational system doesn’t promote independent thinking, he said, and students at primary to secondary levels are not taught in a way that motivates achievement.
“They have no ambition or motivation to pursue higher education,” he said. “They can easily secure a well-paid government job or join the military after high school.”
In fact, 77 percent of all employed Qataris work in the government sector, which is an even more attractive alternative to post-secondary studies for men after recent salary hikes: In 2011, Qatar raised salaries for all nationals in the public sector by 60 percent. Military personnel saw a 120 percent hike in salaries.
In the United Arab Emirates, it is similarly common for young men to join the army or police at an early age, or enter fields such as the oil industry, said Mohammad Al Shamsi, chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology, the largest federal university in the country. As a result, the higher education gender gap is natural, he said.
Al Shamsi said women at the university he overseas account for between 65 percent and 70 percent of the institution’s 22,000 students, which are dispersed across 17 campuses nationwide. But he doesn’t think the gender gap is a problem: “The UAE government and society is enabling young women to go to the workplace,” he said. “Whether it is a male or female, they work where there is need. There is no issue.”
It is unclear how the program will influence the adolescents’ willingness to enroll in higher education. It also does not appear to be part of any wider push to solve the gender gap in the U.A.E., which means it is likely to continue.
Data shows it will also persist in Qatar: 72 percent of Qatari girls compared to 60 percent of Qatari boys at government-run schools plan to pursue a baccalaureate or higher education degree when they finish high school, according to a 2012 study by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute.
Across the United Arab Emirates, boys are dropping out of high school at rates of up to 20 percent a year—significantly higher than female dropout rates, according to research conducted by the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation, in the country’s northernmost emirate.
The Foundation is working with local educators to try to keep young men in school by targeting secondary education. Through a program ongoing since the fall that works to build life skills and self-esteem among male teens, the aim is to keep those at risk of dropping out of high school enrolled in the education system.
While the program is still in the pilot phase and is starting with only 17 students, some say the impact on young men at risk can be significant.
“When you talk to them about what they really would like to do, they do have goals for themselves that are different than going to the army,” said Soha Shami, a research associate at the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research. “And I think it would be a very good thing to invest in for the long-term as well – to have these students be given other options than just the army.”
Al-Emadi, director of the institute, said encouraging Qatari males to enroll in higher education or pursue careers related to the knowledge economy should be a joint effort between society and the government.
“This is a comprehensive social effort,” he said. “Qatar University or educational institutions can’t do it alone. There must be a clear strategy in which these institutions participate.”
Eman Kamel reported in Qatar, Sarah Lynch in the United Arab Emirates.