East and West, African sector a middle-class fortress

Study finds class and gender inequality in Ghana's and Tanzania's universities. David Matthews writes

November 17, 2011

Poor students are "hugely" under-represented in universities in Ghana and Tanzania in a manner that mirrors the UK, a study has found.

The three-and-a-half-year project, led by the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, also found that female students in the African countries face pressure to trade sex for grades and to cook and clean for male students.

Louise Morley, director of the centre and principal investigator of the study, said that it was common for disadvantaged students to make up less than a tenth of course cohorts, even though the poor make up the majority of the population in both countries.

"Typically, low SES [socio-economic status] students, both male and female, constituted a maximum of 10-12 per cent on any programme at any level," says the report, Widening Participation in Higher Education in Ghana and Tanzania.

Professor Morley said that this was due to a lack of "social capital", as well as the barrier posed by tuition fees.

"The urban middle classes know about universities and have the networks and experience [to access them]," she said. "It's very similar to studies in the UK...Just as we find in this country, higher education is captured by the middle classes."

The universities surveyed for the study did have quotas for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but failed to fill them or monitor how many poor students were in attendance, Professor Morley said.

"There's a lack of supply," she explained. "A lot [of disadvantaged students] are from very poor rural communities where they cannot access basic education."

The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development, gathered data from one public and one private university in both countries, which sit on opposite sides of the African continent.

The researchers assessed the institutions on criteria including access to higher education, the retention of students and achievements such as completion rates.

They also interviewed 200 students as well as 200 academics, staff and policymakers.

Private universities were found to be more likely to offer part-time degrees that allowed poor mature students to study while working so that they could pay for their courses, Professor Morley said.

They also had a higher proportion of women and "slightly" more disadvantaged students.

"This raises big questions about whether the private sector offers more opportunities for under-represented groups, or diverts them to inferior provision," she said.

Subterranean sexist blues

Professor Morley explained that although gender equality was widely discussed in both countries and their universities expressed a desire to attract more women on to degree-level courses, there was a "subterranean world where gender power gets relaid".

"Many of the [female] students were asked for sex for grades," she said, although she added that those targeted were not in the majority.

The report quotes an unnamed academic manager at the Ghanaian public university investigated by the study as saying: "Sexual harassment is a way of life at this university...and people don't like to talk about it...the female students are very vulnerable to lecturers."

Professor Morley also said that female students were put under "constant pressure from [male students] to go out with them, to sleep with them". And if they became sexually involved with male students, women were "expected" to cook for them and clean their clothes, the report found.

However, despite the numerous problems highlighted by the research, Professor Morley emphasised that the proportion of women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education was increasing in both countries.

"It's wonderful that there's an increasing number of women," she said. "[But] you find that [they] tend to be from more wealthy classes."

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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