Interview: María Fernanda Campo Saavedra

Will the government be able to achieve its goal of 50% higher education enrolment by 2014?

MARIA FERNANDA CAMPO SAAVEDRA: Education needs to improve to decrease unemployment rates and add value to the labour market. Regarding higher education, in 2014 we plan to enrol 240,000 new students in higher education institutions to reach 50%. In the past three years we have increased coverage by 10%, which represents 420,000 new tertiary education students. The most important aspect of the increase in coverage is that 58% of new students come from families that earn less than two minimum wage salaries per month. We have also strengthened higher education by investing over COP7bn ($3.5m) in libraries, laboratories, technology, and in master’s and doctoral degree programmes. The ICETEX educational loan programme, described by the OECD as among the best in the world, has also been improved. There are zero loan charges and the principal is reduced by 25% for all students who graduate. More than 330,000 students have benefitted from this system.

How is the ministry encouraging students to pursue technical careers?

CAMPO: Colombia is a diverse country and every region has a different economic vocation. For the past seven years we have been fostering alliances between higher education institutions and each region’s private sector, with the ministry helping finance new technical programmes. We have been able to fund 80 alliances between higher education institutions and professional associations that help students obtain better jobs.

What is being done to increase the quality of basic education and teaching?

CAMPO: We realised that we need to make major investments in the education of children under five years of age, so we created a strategy called From Zero to Forever, focused on reaching the most vulnerable children in this age category. Through the programme, we have been able to offer high-quality educational, nutritional, health and psychosocial services to over 1m children. With regard to basic and elementary schools, our quality is still very low according to international standards. We have started a programme called Everyone Can Learn, which is aimed at helping students attending schools with the lowest quality levels. It involves 2.5m students from first to fifth grade in 22,000 schools, and is focused on supporting 3000 teachers who work in these schools. Because 77% of these schools are in rural areas, the priority is to guarantee basic standards, such as nutrition, transportation, health, infrastructure and the inclusion of technology. We are constantly working to incorporate new technologies that will help improve the quality of education.

How will you increase quality control over education results?

CAMPO: The most effective tool is the implementation of standardised exams. We have created third grade exams and currently have exams for fifth, seventh and ninth grade too. We have turned all these exams into annual ones and, based on the results, we are able to create programmes for teaching improvement and make institutional changes.

What role is being given to online education?

CAMPO: Online education plays an important role because of two key factors: improving quality and increasing access. All schools in Colombia are equipped with digital equipment with an average of 10 children per computer, compared to 22 students per computer three years ago. We focus on training teachers so that they are able to use modern technology in their teaching. So far, we have trained around 40% of basic and elementary school teachers (128,000), and we aim to generate digital content for all educational levels. We also have a current research programme on the impact of technology on education, and encourage the use of internet in higher education so we can reach students in regions that were previously inaccessible.