Colombia's education reform reinforces school standards and participation rates


With the second-largest population in South America after Brazil, Colombia’s responsibility to educate its population is of regional significance. In a bid to maintain competitiveness in the global economy, as well as close the sizeable access and attainment gap between rural and urban areas, the government has set ambitious targets and increased funding. Since the 2016 peace deal between the government and the FARC armed militant group, offering quality education to populations in former conflict zones is a key part of improving long-term economic prospects.

Enrolment & Attainment

Colombia’s average adult literacy rate is 94.7%, slightly higher than that of Latin America and the Caribbean, which sits at 93.5%. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), in 2017 there were 10m students enrolled in education, 0.3% less than in 2016. Of these, 9.9% were registered at the preschool level, 43.1% at the primary level, and 47.1% at the secondary and middle levels. Around 80.2% of these numbers are made up of students who are officially enrolled, with 19.8% unofficially enrolled, attending private institutions not included by the government system.

According to observers in the sector, these lower student numbers can be explained by declining birth rates, which have resulted in a demographic shift in the study body in the past decade. Sector players believe that people who have the means to fund education are having fewer children, resulting in a fall in student enrolment and a slowdown in the growth of educational institutions, particularly universities.

Public Versus Private 

According to DANE, in 2017 the division between students attending public, state-run schools versus private schools was 97.1% and 2.9%, respectively. Because private schools tend to be smaller, the nominal split in institutional terms is more even. There are 9344 government-funded secondary schools in Colombia, compared to 4079 private ones. Despite this split, there remains a significant difference in quality between them. Though former President Juan Manuel Santos had hoped to reduce the difference in education quality between public and private spheres, in the OECD’s 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment score the gap was steady, at around 39%.

Research firm Sapiens publishes an annual ranking of Colombian schools by subject. The country has some 13,400 schools, with 840 ranked by the firm. Of these, 176 achieved top positions in at least one subject, and those who ranked in the top 100 were short-listed into a final list of 37. Of this shortlist, all were from the private sector, and 0.5% of public schools fit into the top category (A+). This seems to reinforce the narrative that high educational achievement is linked with economic privilege.

The government claims that policies such as the Jornada Única (Single Day) programme, which seeks to keep students in school for more time, have made some progress in reducing this divide. By underscoring the global correlation between educational achievement and time spent in classrooms, the programme aims to better manage pupils’ daily schedules, extending their school days in order to reduce exposure to unfavourable social risk factors.

Over 8m students have participated since the programme was originally established. In Bogotá, by the beginning of 2018, 14% of students had benefitted from the programme, and this rose to 17% by the end of the year. It has already successfully improved a number of social indicators, such as levels of criminality, teenage pregnancies and illegal drug consumption, statistics which, in turn, have a great effect on educational achievement.

In terms of infrastructure, it is estimated that an additional $7.1trn will be needed to close the existing gap between public and private school education.


The 2019 Times Higher Education rankings place three private Colombian universities in the global top 1000: Pontifical Javeriana University, University of the Andes and the Industrial University of Santander. Social class remains a significant determinant of whether or not a student attains a university education. Around 61% of the most wealthy Colombians go to university, whereas 25% of those with lower incomes do the same.

With declining enrolment rates in universities, largely due to shifting demographics, one way to maintain student numbers is to narrow the disparity between rich and poor by increasing penetration rates among less privileged populations. Sector players have suggested that one way to achieve this is to create an environment where students from lower-income families can seek a quality university education, through the establishment of subsidies or pre-financing initiatives. Some university officials have proposed the idea of a programme of meanstested, low-interest loans, similar to those found in the UK or Australia, as a way to boost student numbers and address inequality in higher education.

Funding issues at public universities emerged early on as problematic for the administration, despite being one of the top three areas of government spending. Student marches from 32 public universities in November 2018 caused widespread disruption for a number of weeks, leading President Iván Duque to dedicate an extra COP4.5trn ($1.5bn) to higher education over the course of his administration.


As is the case throughout many sectors, technology is playing an increasingly important role in education. Colombia is positioning itself as both a regional and global player in the start-up culture (see ICT chapter). At the semi-finals of the 2018 Global EdTech Startup Awards, Colombian start-up BabySpark was named most promising Latin American start-up of 2018. The app is a mobile platform which allows parents to measure and analyse each stage of their child’s development. Although more focused on early development than sustained educational attainment, the programme fits with the (Ministerio de Educación, Mineducación) sector plan that was established by the Ministry of Education.

Another Colombian edtech start-up platform, Tarefa, connects pupils with certified teachers for a range of learning needs with 24/7 live or pre-recorded online classes. On the supply side of the spectrum, AMIS provides feedback to schools on their educational models based on data analytics, while Arukay is a start-up that focuses on computer programming for students, professionals and various educational establishments.

The number of programmes that become available are only relevant if the current high demand is sustained. These innovation-led efforts are a step in the right direction; however, the government and academia appear more focused on attending structural, financial and operational issues with the educational system. Edtech acts as a supporting element.

Structure & Oversight

Colombia’s education is enshrined in its constitution, which stipulates that education is an individual’s right, and that the state has a social obligation to provide, enforce and regulate education services to the highest possible standard. Mineducación, which oversees the sector, aims “to lead the formulation, implementation and evaluation of public education policies to close existing gaps in guaranteeing the right to education and the provision of quality services”. The ministry is divided into two vice-ministries: the Vice-ministry of Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education, and the Vice-ministry of Higher Education.

The education system is grouped into five categories: early childhood education, preschool education for children under five, followed by five years of primary education and four of secondary. There are then two years of upper secondary schooling before moving on to higher education.

Goals & Initiatives

Education is a crucial element of the government’s National Development Plan 2018-22 (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, PND). Approximately COP216.5bn ($74m) will be allocated to the sector under the plan, and the objective is to have 60% of students attend higher education institutions by the end of 2022. The plan also includes 330,000 more beneficiaries from the Generación E ( Generation E) programme, which provides underprivileged Colombians with access to higher education.

In addition, Mineducación has created its own sector-focused plan, the 2018-22 Education Sector Plan. Its objectives align closely with those of the broader PND; however, it goes further in addressing overall student well-being and infant education. With commitments to education from both the central government and the ministry, it is clear that the government is focused on better administering systems of learning, closing the income gap and improving higher education outcomes. This is likely to provide better economic opportunities for the population at large, boosting competitiveness across the board.

Best Educated Initiative

Part of the 2015-25 strategic framework from the government’s La Mejor Educada (The Best Educated) initiative is aimed at positioning Colombia as the most educated country in Latin America by 2025. The plan involves consulting and working with parents, young people, teachers, the government and civil society to create equal opportunities, economic growth, social transformation and maintain peace. Despite COP37.5bn ($12.8m) of investment under the administration of President Santos, 80% more than the previous government, Colombia has improvements to make before reaching its goal of being the region’s most educated nation.

In an interview with local media, Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD, described Colombia’s education system as too fragmented, atomised and localised. ”Moreover, in a 2018 OECD report, it is noted that enrolment rates in rural areas are over 20 percentage points lower than in urban areas, and that in OECD’s assessment in 2015, rural students scored 38% lower than in urban areas,” he said. However, he highlighted the importance of the General Participation System (Sistema General de Participaciones, SGP) and its role in helping rural communities receive government funding. The SGP is a mechanism by which central government funds are transferred to entities of all government levels in order to finance education institutions. Overall, Schleicher was positive about Colombia’s progress implementing effective policies, calling the country one of the most quickly improving in terms of its educational achievement. “The country has been able to, with relative success, continue with the policies of its successors, which has allowed it to improve its educational system quality,” he said.

Generación E

Generación E was announced in October 2018 and is intended to provide education to 336,000 students, with a total investment of $3.6bn. This replaced the previous administration’s Ser Pilo Paga (It Pays to Be Smart) initiative. It was designed around three key pillars: first, to cover 100% of enrolment costs for students; second, to strengthen all 61 participating institutions with annual funding of COP223m ($76,300); and third, to be available to students with less privileged economic backgrounds who may not otherwise enrol.

Iberoamerican 2021

As Latin America slowly becomes more economically integrated, the need to boost regional prosperity is increasingly important. Various ministers of education from across Spanishand Portuguese-speaking Latin America have agreed on a series of goals for their countries in the hope of improving educational outcomes. These goals have been set for 2021 – the bicentenary of the independence of many countries in Latin America from Spain. The central objective is to improve quality of education, address poverty and inequality, and promote social inclusion. In addition, it has set 11 goals, ranging from universalising primary and secondary education and boosting tertiary education participation, to increasing collaboration between education and employment opportunities through technical and professional education.

Global Rankings 

In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2018”, Colombia ranked 60th out of 140 nations overall. In the skills index, however, it ranked 80th. Although this put it slightly higher than the Latin American average, the fact that Colombia’s skills land it 20 places behind its overall competitiveness ranking implies that a lack of human capital development is inhibiting the country’s economic dynamism. According to the World Bank, government expenditure on education was 4.4% of GDP in 2017, well on a par with the regional average. In addition, education accounts for about 15.2% of total government expenditure.

Closing the Gap

Although spending is in line with global and regional benchmarks, structural economic issues make it more challenging to match educational outcomes with higher expectations. A 2018 OECD report on school funding points out that the country’s inequality index, which is over twice as high as other OECD nations, is an indicator of the need to boost education attainment in poorer areas, particularly in rural regions. As part of the 2016 peace accord, the government promised to boost education in these zones, in the form of a special rural education plan. In an effort to boost teaching quality in these regions, the government has negotiated with the country’s largest teacher union to establish more attractive conditions for teachers in remote and rural areas.

Job Market

According to Telefónica Foundation Colombia, almost two-thirds of the children who started middle school in 2018 will end up working in jobs that did not exist that year. In light of President Duque’s push towards the so-called Orange Economy, which looks to double the GDP contribution of digital and creative industries within 10 years, the need to provide the population with the relevant skills to drive this forward has become more apparent. With the help of a new programme called Coding for Kids, the government aims to train 15,600 students in computer programming by the end of 2019. This programme will first train 260 public school teachers throughout the country, in a joint venture with Mineducación, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones, MINTIC) and the British Council. MINTIC will invest COP2bn ($684,000) and the British Council is set to contribute COP835m ($286,000). The model is based on British Council initiatives, which are already active in 23 countries.

The training is expected to provide students with the relevant technical skills needed to help boost their chances of securing jobs in innovative industries, as well as provide Colombia with improved human resource capabilities. “Through this programme, the government is investing in training more young people in key skills,” Sylvia Constaín, minister of ICT, told local press. “This will allow them to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while also encouraging entrepreneurship and equality,” she said.

Research & Development

In an increasingly dynamic economy, the need for Colombia’s higher education institutions to evolve their activities and become more focused on research and development (R&D) is increasingly evident. The government is pushing its own initiative, the Pact for Science, Technology and Innovation, as part of the PND. When the initiative launched in 2018, the government underscored the minimal ongoing collaboration between companies and universities. It also highlighted that only 2.5% of researchers work directly for companies, compared to the Latin American average of 22%. Colombia invests 0.7% of its GDP on science, technology and innovation, compared to the regional average of 1%. The government has set several goals for the public and private sectors to reach by 2022. These involve doubling investment in R&D to 1.5% of GDP, and doubling the number of agreements on technology transfer between universities and companies aided by the government’s Administrative Department of Science. They also plan to measure the public sector’s innovative capacity throughout the country.

Universities will experience the most significant change, particularly in their working relationships with private companies. Certainly, some leaders recognise that a shift towards firming up both R&D and evaluation practices has already begun. Although the quality of higher education has improved, some university officials believe that an increase in funding will be necessary in order for institutions to boost their educational prowess and undertake more R&D activities. At the same time, measures to evaluate efficiency and teaching standards will help to support the continued growth of the university segment.

Indeed, any shift towards a more R&D-focused approach will necessitate collaborative structures for both universities and private companies. The majority of R&D initiatives are led by private sector organisations, but there is still more that can be done to increase private sector participation in this area. Some sector players argue that local private firms tend not to see R&D as a priority and instead look upon it as a corporate social responsibility, whereas international firms are keen to bring their technology to Colombia. However, this trend may be shifting thanks to new the government’s new initiatives to encourage private sector involvement.


Colombia’s education sector has a number of hurdles to overcome before it can reach its objective to permanently boost outcomes. First and foremost, the government’s obligation to provide extra funding for the sector will need to remain sustained and highly targeted, to increase participation rates and close the divide between rural and urban areas. In addition, it is important for higher education establishments to identify and act on both private sector necessities and new trends. These changes will help to ensure that students are prepared for an increasingly dynamic and digitalised economy.

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The Report: Colombia 2019

Education chapter from The Report: Colombia 2019

Cover of The Report: Colombia 2019

The Report

This article is from the Education chapter of The Report: Colombia 2019. Explore other chapters from this report.

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