Kakenya The number of students who pursue their studies abroad(1), has been rising for decades, and has become the focus of growing attention.(2) Kakenya is one of many who have contributed to the rise in numbers. She has made a remarkable journey from her childhood years in rural Kenya, where the access of girls to education still poses many challenges, to higher education at an American university. Kakenya’s story illustrates that gender norms keep girls from continuing school. Her migration has also been a way of getting free of the expectations that her community put on her because of her gender.

Over the past two decades, the proportion of adolescents aged 10-14 who have never attended school has fallen from 21 to 11 per cent for boys, and from 39 to 18 per cent for girls.(3) Moreover, young people in developing countries are spending more of their adolescence in school than ever before.(4) Nevertheless, while gender gaps in primary education are closing globally, more girls than boys are still out of school. In later adolescence (ages 15-19) the gender gap widens, overall attendance rates drop substantially, and regional differences become more pronounced.(5)

Students leave their countries to study abroad for a variety of reasons, including lack of access to tertiary education in their home countries; the opportunity for better-quality education, and the experience of studying and living abroad in preparation for an increasingly globalised world.(6) Many hope that studying abroad will bring better job opportunities in their own countries. For many, however, life will take a different turn: rather than returning to their roots, they will stay on in the country where they studied.

In 2004, at least 2.5 million tertiary students studied outside their home countries compared to 1.75 million just five years earlier, a 41 per cent increase since 1999.(7) More than two-thirds of the world’s foreign students are in just six countries: 23 per cent study in the United States, followed by the United Kingdom (12 per cent) Germany (11 per cent), France (10 per cent) Australia (7 per cent) and Japan (5 per cent). In these countries mobile student populations grew almost three times as fast as domestic enrolment over recent years.(8)

Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest percentage of students abroad: about one in every 16 students, almost three times the global average.(9) But only five out of 100 young people of tertiary age are enrolled in tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 69 in North America and Europe.(10) In Cape Verde, Comoros and Guinea-Bissau the number of students abroad exceeds domestic enrolment. They account for more than 50 per cent of students in Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Lesotho and Namibia.(11) About half of the mobile students from Sub-Saharan Africa go to Western Europe. North America and Sub-Saharan Africa itself attract about an equal number of the remaining mobile students. For those who study abroad within the region, South Africa is by far the most popular destination, attracting about nine out of ten mobile students.(12)

Over the past few years, the Arab region has also seen a sharp increase in student mobility. The pursuit of higher education abroad is major factor in youth emigration, especially for young men. Young women migrate for university education abroad, but to a much lesser extent than their male peers, because of cultural norms that restrict their mobility.(13) Two out of three mobile students from the Arab States study in Western Europe and another 12 per cent go to North America. About 13 per cent stay in the region.(14)

There has been an expansion of arrangements whereby universities from developed countries develop partnerships with universities in developing countries or establish branch campuses there. Governments have supported or encouraged these arrangements in the hope both of improving the training opportunities for their citizens without having to send them abroad and of attracting qualified students from other countries.(15)

Young women like Kakenya should not have to leave their communities, surroundings or homelands in pursuit of an education. One of the Millennium Development Goals is to ensure that by 2015 all children go to school and that girls have the same educational opportunities as boys. Parents and communities should value girls’ education as much as boys’. Girls should not be removed from school early to be married, or because of unintended pregnancy. Girls and boys alike should have access to high-quality education in a gender-sensitive school environment that supports their educational aspirations.

To this end countries should work to eliminate or reduce school fees; provide incentives to retain children and young people in school, and monitor in each community the access and retention of children and young people at all levels of education.