Colombia: Cooperating on education reform
While Chile’s student protests have made global headlines over the past year, Colombia is going through a similar, albeit less well-publicised, educational transformation of its own. Lawmakers and students are currently working together on drafting the reform that they hope will bring the country’s higher education system up to par with developed-world standards.
Current reform efforts follow a heated disagreement between congress and student leaders that began last fall as congress debated the ratification of a new reform law. Under this plan, lawmakers focused primarily on increasing the availability of higher education at public universities, supporting the entrance of more low-income students into the system and instituting better governance and transparency at Colombian universities.
The bill proposed an increase in the number of seats available at public universities – 600,000 more spots for undergraduates and 45,000 more for graduate students. Lawmakers reasoned this would allow for an increase in the percentage of eligible students matriculated in higher education from 37% to 50%. Long term, supporters of the reform bill estimate that measures to expand university capacity would allow matriculation to reach 64% of qualifying students, the same level as developed countries, by 2022.
Also debated as part of the bill was a proposal to provide low-income students with student loans on extremely favourable conditions, including zero-interest and 25% debt cancellation upon graduation.
While student leaders and lawmakers alike could agree on the need to expand public university capacity and support low-income students, there were several more controversial proposals that were met with strong resistance from the academic community.
Among them was a requirement that all of Colombia’s 80 universities be accredited. At present, only 21 of the country’s universities are accredited, and many university leaders argue that without greater resources, it would be impossible for them to be fairly evaluated for accreditation.
The most controversial part of the bill, however, did not even make it to congress for the November debate. Lawmakers had originally proposed that private universities, which are currently all non-profit and thus forced to re-invest any funds received, be transformed into profit-seeking enterprises.
This proposal was motivated by lawmakers’ belief that much of the funds received by private universities are “re-invested” into a few hands. A for-profit system, they argued, would force private universities to operate more efficiently and transparently, while potentially granting universities the ability to attract more capital from abroad.
To Colombian students, this proposal sounded like little more than an attempt by lawmakers to shirk responsibility for higher education by handing over a large number of universities to private market forces. Following the strong disapproval of students and academics, this part of the bill was dropped in August 2011.
Another controversial part of the bill remained, however. This was a proposal for public universities to seek out alternative sources of funding by developing collaborations with private companies, such as technological parks.
It was this proposal that led to massive student protests and a student strike at the end of 2011. Finally, in mid-November, Maria Fernanda Campo, the minister of education, announced the withdrawal of the bill from congressional debate, officially bowing to students’ requests for a greater voice in designing and implementing university reform.
At present, MANE (the National Student Board) is the designated student representative to the government. The organisation is comprised of delegates from both public and private universities, as well as technical schools.
In MANE’s first face-to-face meeting with the government on April 11, the group outlined a proposal to debate potential reform measures first between the university student and faculty bodies and then on the city and regional level.
Juan Sebastián López, a MANE spokesperson, told local press that, “The government respects and recognises MANE’s methodology as expansive and democratic”. MANE plans to organise several public debates in early June. Conclusions drawn from these debates will be synthesised into an alternative proposal for education reform, which MANE will announce on October 12.
While lawmakers and students are likely to struggle over the specifics of the reform, they do agree that something must be done. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s recently released a report claiming that a lack of highly qualified personnel is likely to hold Colombia back from reaping the benefits of new free trade agreements with the US and Canada.
A higher education system plagued by budget shortfalls and inefficiencies will eventually hold back the Colombian economy as a whole unless lawmakers and students can agree on a way to buck the current trend.