Student migrations and the feminisation of European universities

Natalia Tikhonov,
University of Geneva

L'étudiant étranger. Préactes dela journée d'études du 8 février 2002

The end of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of two new categories of students in Western universities :  foreigners and women. This trend manifested itself mainly in countries with a dense, well-developed university network such as Switzerland, France, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Belgium. The Italian, Spanish, English, Scottish, Dutch or Scandinavian universities were less affected by this wave, and the number of foreign students they hosted remained relatively slight given, among other things, the fact that their languages of instruction were rarely studied in the schools of the other European countries. The presence of women was also less important in these universities and mainly consisted of natives of each country concerned. I have thus chosen to concentrate on the universities which experienced an early, massive influx of women. I shall try to show the existence of a close link between the access of women to higher education and student migrations in the European university space between 1870 and 1910.

The best means of illustrating this hypothesis is to consider university statistics for the countries that welcomed the emigrant students. To show the extent of this phenomenon, let us consider the situation just before the First World War :  in 1913, for every 1,000 registered students, universities in Germany had 80 foreigners; in Austria, 96; in France, 170; in Belgium, 289 and in Switzerland, 516. The female presence in 1913 followed a similar pattern :  out of 1,000 registered students, we find 79 women in Germany, 86 in Austria, 92 in France and 287 in Switzerland (the comparable figure for Belgium is unfortunately unavailable because of the lack of comparative studies on the presence of women in its universities). An analysis of the female presence in the universities of these countries will allow us to bring out the components of this migratory flow.

Switzerland experienced the greatest influx of both foreigners and women in its universities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Swiss university landscape included seven establishments of higher learning for a country of 3,300,000 inhabitants. Five of these institutions had a very open admissions policy, namely the universities of Zurich, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne and Neufchatel, while the other two, Basel and Freiburg, were more reticent about expanding their traditional recruitment. The access of women to higher education began at the end of the 1860s, with the enrolment of the first Russian women students at the University of Zurich. The first decade of the twentieth century saw both the highest rate of feminisation and the greatest presence of foreign women students. During this period, women constituted between 25 and 30 percent of total enrolments, while foreign women accounted for more than 90 percent of the total female student population. For the winter semester of 1906-07, 1,832 women were registered in the Swiss universities, including 1,696 foreigners and only 127 native Swiss. The ranks of the foreign women students consisted mainly of migrants from Eastern Europe and, more specifically, the Russian Empire, most of whom were Jewish, Catholic or Lutheran and belonged to ethnic minorities. Indeed, if we go back to the winter 1906-07 semester, we find that out of the 1,696 foreign women who were registered, 1,545, or 89 percent, came from the Russian Empire. The remainder include other Slavs (Bulgarians, Serbs, Rumanians) as well as Germans, French and Anglo-Americans.

In France, the movement of women towards the universities got underway in 1861, when a young French woman passed her baccalauréat exam in Lyon. However, the theoretical right of access to higher education dates only from 1880. In general, regulations concerning the admission of women were nationwide, with no significant differences between regional authorities. Unlike the Swiss case, from the early 1890s on, the number of French women students is consistently higher than that of foreign women, representing between 50 and 65 percent of female enrolments depending on the year. But once again, women students from the Russian Empire form the bulk of the foreign women’s ranks and their presence is particularly pronounced at the turn of the century. The Paris academic district, which accounted for nearly half of all female enrolments, was also the one with the most foreign women. Contrary to the national statistics, the French women students in Paris were less numerous than their foreign counterparts, but on the eve of the hostilities, the disparity evened out. The other French universities receiving an influx of foreign women students were those in Montpellier, Nancy, Grenoble and Toulouse, which were also the most sought after by foreigners, both male and female.

Belgium’s turn came in the 1880s when, between 1880 and 1882, women were successively admitted to the Universities of Brussels, Liege and Ghent. (The Catholic University of Louvain did not open its doors to women until 1920 and is therefore not included in our study.) Of these three universities favourable to the education of women, Brussels is the only one for which I was able to obtain statistics, and unlike the other universities analysed, the data remain very summary, indicating only the total number of women registered during the 1890-1914 period. Out of a total of 585 regular women students, 43 percent were Belgian and 57 percent foreigners. Among the latter, two main groups can clearly be distinguished—those coming from the Russian Empire (50 % of the foreign women), once again with a preponderance of ethnic minorities, and the Anglo-Americans (35 % of the foreign women).

In Germany, the admission of women to university studies as regular students occurred thirty years later than in the countries analysed above. The duchy of Bade was the pioneer, regularising the registration of women in 1900 (the first enrolment took place at the University of Heidelberg in April 1900) and opting without ambiguity for coeducation at university level. From 1900 to 1909, the federal States successively recognised the right of women to higher education. The Prussian universities came at the end, when a ministerial decree of 18 August 1908 legalised the status of regular women students in all the universities in Prussia.

The presence of women in German universities not only came later but was also more limited than in the other host countries. On the eve of the First World War, they constituted only 7 percent of all enrolments. Even in the most feminised universities, including Berlin, Bonn, Freiburg, Göttingen, Heidelberg, Königsberg, Marburg, Munich and Munster, the proportion of women students registered was situated between 5 and 10 percent of total enrolments. The number of foreign women students, meanwhile, was relatively insignificant in comparison to their German peers, and those coming from the Russian Empire, notwithstanding their presence in other Western universities, do not seem to have been particularly attracted by the German institutions, where they never constituted more than 5 percent of the female population (mainly the universities of Berlin, Giessen and Göttingen).

Austria, last of all, is the country with the smallest female presence in the universities, even though women were admitted to higher education a few years earlier than in Germany. The University of Vienna began admitting women in 1897, and Graz and Innsbruck followed the Viennese example in 1901 and 1904, respectively. During the period before the First World War, women students hardly represented more than 2 percent of the total enrolment at the University of Graz and 1 percent at Innsbruck. Vienna, which was the largest university centre in all of Central and Eastern Europe, attracted a number of women students slightly higher than the national average :  on the eve of the war, they made up 5 percent of the student population. Although at the present time we do not have data on the geographical and ethnic origins of these women, accounts from the period suggest that the Austrian universities were not the favoured destinations of women students coming from Eastern Europe.

From this brief overview, I would propose the following conclusions. In the large host countries, the presence of foreign students in general, and that of foreign women students in particular, remained marginal relative to the size of the internal university market. But it assumes a larger place in small host countries with more open recruitment, such as Switzerland or Belgium. The women students, who made up the largest part of this migratory wave, were excluded from the national education systems because of the absence of higher education structures open to women in their countries (cf. the case of Anglo-Saxon women who came to Belgium to take their doctoral exams in medicine because they were denied access in their own countries) or the quotas applied to the admission of ethnic or religious minorities (cf. Jewish, Lutheran or Catholic women students in the Russian Empire). If we draw on the work of Victor Karady, we can qualify the choice made by the non-native students of the Russian Empire as a demand for studies because of limited opportunity, while the migration of women students brought about by the lack of studies offered in their own countries (Anglo-Americans, Russians of Orthodox religion) has more to do with structural demand. Unlike their male peers, who were participating in the creation of the elites of their home country through the knowledge acquired abroad, the women, because of their position in the society of that time, could not aspire to such a role. As for the origins of the foreign women students, the growing number of those coming from the Russian Empire, men and women alike, is particularly spectacular in the Western university world.

The main lines of student migrations before the First World War have been sketched out by a number of researchers. What is needed at present is greater attention to the qualitative study of this population. A more detailed investigation of students migrating from the Russian Empire will allow us to arrive at a more precise definition of their ethnic and religious origins, which are so important for establishing the reasons behind their choice of foreign studies. Other groups of foreign students, of lesser size and more specific destinations, also merit more in-depth research. Finally, taking into account the gender breakdown of the migrant populations will greatly facilitate the explanation of the choice of host country and university.

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