Learning the ropes: Policies aim to boost industry-oriented knowledge and produce well-trained professionals

Recognising that human capital is essential to its longterm economic development, Colombia is making strong efforts to position the nation as a leader in education within the region, and in doing so it is addressing major long-term issues that have segregated different regions and social classes. While elementary school and vocational training remain quite strong, higher education has recently stepped to the forefront, with several reforms are currently under way to improve access, funding mechanisms and quality.

STRUCTURE: The education system covers 12 years of compulsory instruction. Divided into four stages, schooling begins with one mandatory year of nursery education, followed by nine years of elementary education, fulfilled in the cycles of primary elementary (five grades) and secondary elementary (four grades). Compulsory education ends with two years of “middle” school, similar to the last two grades of high school. The Ministry of National Education (Ministerio de Educación Nacional, MEN) is in charge of regulating norms and controlling quality for all educational institutions, while administering funds to public facilities. Although Colombia is a secular state, most schools obligate students to take religion classes owing to the Catholic character of the nation. In public institutions, instruction and all related services – such as obtaining an ID card and enrolment – are free. Although a law from 1994 establishes this universal framework, completely free education only became a reality in 2012, as nearly 74% of municipalrun preschools and primary basic schools previously charged for many complementary services, effectively preventing access to all. Since then, Congress mandated that all public facilities offer completely free services. The law also prohibits any educational facility, private or public, from operating for-profit. According to the National Administrative Statistics Department, nearly 11m students were enrolled in the mandatory basic education system in 2011, reaching a gross coverage rate of around 90%. Though this dropped slightly, down by 0.8% on the previous year, the trend is headed upwards; in 1995, the total number of students enrolled in the system came to just 8.7m. Such coverage rates have been obtained partly through a system in which students attend classes either in the morning or the afternoon, cutting down on the number of instruction hours. Though more students attend school through this system, it has been criticised for lowering quality in primary education.

VOCATIONAL: Vocational training has traditionally been a very important part of the education and labour sectors in Colombia. The government-run National Learning Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, SENA) covers around 60% of professional instruction through 118 centres located throughout the country, providing free education oriented towards specific productive sectors and job placement. SENA services have evolved significantly over its 45-year history, coming to include 15 “techno-parks”, aimed at enhancing skills of professionals and small businesses, and three “techno-academies” that train secondary school students during the last two years of their education. Altogether, SENA currently provides services to more than 7m pupils, although some debate the true extent of the coverage and whether SENA services genuinely count as “higher” education. The sectors with the highest demand are those related to technology, since they offer better chances of job placement and generally higher wages. Demand for traditional sectors such as agriculture and livestock is diminishing significantly.

TECHNO-ACADEMIES: A comparatively recent addition to SENA’s catalogue of services, the first technoacademies opened in 2010 with a centre in Cazucá, on the outskirts of Bogotá. Since then, academies have expanded to Medellín and Neiva, with a current roll of 1200 pupils. This initiative aims not only for students to enter the labour force straight from secondary school, but also encourages them to continue their education in universities or technological institutes, serving as another mechanism within the larger “training chain”. By the end of 2013, SENA plans to have academies operating in the regions of Manizales, Armenia and Nariño.

Though international study abroad programmes are not the norm at SENA, it has sometimes used them. However, with the raft of free trade agreements (FTAs) being signed, instruction has placed more importance on complementing technical skills with bilingualism. Second-language instruction is linked directly to specific industries, as this is perceived as a useful vocational skill. SENA already offers courses in English and French, and has used virtual learning platforms such as Discovery English and Rosetta Stone. In 2012 SENA embarked on initiatives to introduce distance learning, in order to reach students in remote areas of the country as well as Colombians living abroad.

E-READINESS: While 75% of primary and secondary schools have internet connections, only 9% of those access the internet through fixed broadband, according to a 2013 UNESCO study on information and communications technology (ICT) in education throughout all of Latin America and the Caribbean. This means that a large proportion of students trying to navigate the web during school hours do so though slow dial-up connections. Although strategies to promote the integration of ICT in education are present in national plans covering primary and secondary levels, they do not form part of national policy. The study notes that Colombia has integrated recommendations on ICT-assisted instruction within curricula but not necessarily for all subjects, with weaknesses in mathematics, sciences, basic computer skills and written communication.

Even so, the learner-to-computer ratio (LCR) for primary and secondary education in Colombia is 12:1 – quite good in comparison to other countries in the region. (In the Dominican Republic, for example, 122 students share a single computer.) However, there is room to improve this figure and catch up with countries like Uruguay, which has an LCR of 1:1 after a state programme that worked closely with the One Laptop Per Child project. Carlos Martínez, dean of economic studies at the Universidad Santo Tomás, believes ICT needs to gain a more important role in the educational system. “Colombia has been too dependent on imports of ICT, which is not sustainable and ultimately creates a hole in the country’s curriculum,” Martínez told OBG.

ONLINE OPTIONS: For Pablo Navas Sanz de Santamaría, chancellor of Universidad de los Andes ( UNIANDES), ICT learning offers Colombia an opportunity to attract students from more secluded areas of the country. Several universities, including UNIANDES, have begun to implement “blended learning” which involves dividing instruction between pre-recorded classes and meeting with professors to discuss video content. This method is used only for students who are working professionals, an appropriate target group, according to sector specialists interviewed by OBG. Students who do not receive proper skills at primary and secondary levels require personal instruction to excel, as opposed to learning from a computer screen. This is the case in the majority of rural schools, which contrast sharply with those in urban areas in terms of quality and resources.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Undergraduate higher education is split into four categories comprising university corporations, universities, professional training and technological training, accounting for nearly 300 institutions throughout the country. Graduate studies cover specialisation courses, master’s and PhD degrees, all of which are relatively new in Colombia and for which demand is increasing rapidly (see analysis).

State financing of public universities depends largely on the size and quality of each institution. While larger universities such as the public Universidad Nacional (UNAL) can receive COP7.6m ($4560) per student, smaller institutions tend to see figures more around COP3.3m ($1980) per student. According to Víctor Alejandro Venegas, the deputy director of sector development at MEN’s Vice-Ministry of Higher Education, “It is more costly to produce all the resources necessary for students at larger universities, considering the magnitude and complexity implied in providing all the necessary tools for students.” However, he recognised that resources need to be distributed among institutions more equally, a concern that is an integral part of the ministry’s reform policy. Others in the sector noted the need for balance on the private side of the equation: “The key issue that needs to be addressed in higher education is the financing of private universities, which need more freedom and latitude if they want to improve,” Carlos Felipe Londoño, president of Escuela de Ingenieros de Antioquia (EIA), told OBG ACCESS:Gross coverage for higher education in 2012 was registered at 42.2%, significantly up from the 27% in 2004. The government plans to continue increasing these rates and obtain 50% gross coverage by 2014. “These goals can be met only by working with universities,” Venegas told OBG. “Since we have more control over public universities, we aim to work more closely with those institutions to increase the number of students who are enrolled.” He added that in terms of financing, the government is making significant efforts, and therefore universities should contribute by attempting to fill available slots and improve the quality of programmes offered. Nearly 2m students are currently enrolled in higher education, with 55% of students preferring public institutions over 45% favouring private.

Students can obtain loans through the state’s education credit system, ICETEX, which provides 0% real interest during the entire study period. Francisco Piedrahita, president of Universidad ICESI, told OBG, “One of the great challenges is to achieve more equity in access to higher education. ICETEX is working hard to promote access for bright students to top universities via scholarships. This has excellent results although other measures are also needed.” Students are required to take into account only the cost of inflation on the loan, and penalties are applied to those who do not pay off the loan by the deadline. The poorest of Colombia’s students receive a government subsidy of COP640,000 ($384) per semester through the National Planning Department’s programme SISBEN.

Bringing instruction to more rural areas of the country has traditionally posed a barrier that highlighted the inequality between poor and wealthy regions and rural and urban areas. In 2003, MEN sought to increase coverage for neglected regions by creating a series of Regional Centres for Higher Education (Centros Regionales de Educación Superior, CERES), which conduct university-level courses oriented towards local community interests. Many renowned universities participate in the programme, such as UNAL, and closely link courses to productive industries that aim to drive regional development. There are more than 190 CERES throughout the country with 32,000 students enrolled.

The state has also created an entity called the Labour Observatory for Education, which follows the activity of graduates with the hopes of creating projections on the growth of particular sectors. This work aims to provide high school graduates and universities with information about in-demand labour sectors.

ACCREDITATION: Two systems of accreditation exist for higher education in Colombia. One is compulsory, which every institution and programme must undergo. However, this assessment does not go into detail about the assets that each institution has to offer. The second and more highly regarded system is voluntary; and deems beneficiaries as “high-quality” educational institutions. Criteria include teacher training, academic publications, graduation rates and infrastructure.

Of the 81 universities in Colombia, 28 have high quality accreditation, granted by the National Accreditation Council (Consejo Nacional de Acreditación, CNA), which was founded 10 years ago. CNA uses strict international standards that take into account a variety of criteria, including research conducted and published by the university, graduate profiles, content of curriculum and degrees held by the professors, among others. An additional criterion also evaluates the number of already accredited programmes for an institution. Of the 9837 registered programmes within higher education, 768 have high quality accreditation, many of which do not belong to the 28 accredited institutions.

Both students and academics acknowledge the importance of this system to recognise high-quality standards. Father Jorge Iván Ramírez Aguirre, vice-chancellor of Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB), told OBG, “Accreditation has provided a range of financial and logistical benefits to the entities that obtain it. The quality of Colombian accredited institutions, if considered together, makes the country a good candidate to become an educational centre in the Andean region.”

However, Father Ramírez also noted the unequal concentration of quality among Colombian universities, saying that the top 12 can account for up to 85% of academic productivity. He added that the development of intermediate cities is rapidly creating a demand for university-level education, which will require the extension of existing campuses as well as new institutions.

PROPOSED REFORMS: Tertiary education has become a subject of public debate in Colombia as major changes are currently under consideration. In 2012, a proposal to reform Law 30, which dictates the norms of higher education, was abandoned following widespread student protests against the perception that the government wanted to privatise education. According to Venegas, the proposed reform had very positive intentions in general, such as separating inspection and quality assurance from the tasks of the ministry, which would allow for better articulation of duties. However, the stigma surrounding the introduction of profit schemes into the system remained a weight that eventually sunk any viable proposal that year, even after that part of the plan was dropped.

Since then, the government has carried out over 350 workshops around the country to help in drafting a more inclusive proposal to reform the education laws. According to MEN, some 15,000 people have participated in these initiatives, which also include surveys and efforts to take public opinion into account.

Recurring issues include financing, quality, university autonomy and the integration of vulnerable communities such as indigenous populations, Afro-Colombians and “displaced” families escaping violence in rural settings. Financing remains a controversial element of these reforms; some believe the state should cover all expenses while others proposed graduates be obliged to contribute a percentage of their future salaries. According to Venegas, the positive outcome of all this work is that today Colombians are talking about higher education. “It has become an everyday topic of conversation,” Venegas told OBG. “Before, people were not aware of the complications involved in higher education and we believe this change of consciousness is one way of measuring achievements.”

However, concrete change will also be the result of such work, which has been complemented by 29 government-sponsored research projects to support an eventual reform proposal. A document that outlines major sector policies should be drafted by December 2013 and for-profit education will remain prohibited.

FUTURE FUNDING: Irrespective of the current debate, the government has channelled a high level of resources to the sector over the past two of years and will continue to do so in the future. Although Colombian law mandates that the education budget rise alongside the consumer price index by around 3% every year, the authorities are well aware of the need to direct more resources into the sector. In the past two years the ministry has obtained an additional COP256bn ($153.6m) for education though extra-budgetary requests that will require congressional approval.

For 2013, additional resources will amount to COP100bn ($60m), making this year’s total budget COP2.6trn ($1.56bn). Furthermore, a major tax reform in 2012 will steer an additional COP1.5trn ($900m) to education over the next three years, according to MEN. Government goals include improving access, innovation, management and quality.

Since private institutions, which account for over 60% of universities, do not benefit from public funding, their resources rely entirely on enrolment fees, private donations and credit. UPB’s Father Ramírez believes this structure will lead administrators to manage educational institutions similarly to corporations. “The state should also foster relationships between universities and companies, and public-private partnerships,” he said. Though private institutions are not allowed to engage in for-profit activities, many interviewed by OBG said low-profile schools often sidestep legal boundaries.

INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGE: One major problem still hindering the educational sector involves relatively low levels of second-language proficiency. Results from the latest “Prueba Saber”, a ministry-run standardised test, showed that only 20% of university graduates passed with satisfactory levels of English. For Venegas, this phenomenon builds upon itself, since many English teachers enter the workforce with deficient language skills that impede instruction.

This problem can largely be addressed by inspiring more international exchange programmes. Colfuturo, a public-private partnership that provides graduate students with loans to study abroad, has carried out the most successful initiative to date. Beneficiaries who decide to stay and work abroad must pay the fund back at a high interest rate, while those who return to Colombia are rewarded with much lower rates. Colfuturo has sent nearly 6000 students abroad to universities in Australia, North America and Europe. The mechanism has worked so well that many Latin American countries have begun to copy the model.

OUTLOOK: In the near future, Colombia aims to increase enrolment figures and improve equality among institutions and the student body. This implies tackling the issue of increasing the quality of education, which can be addressed in part by accrediting institutions and academic programmes, but also relies on the larger educational cycle of preparing teachers. Much of the inequality within the Colombian education system can be traced back to the deficient primary school conditions to which the lower social classes are more often subject, which include educational deficiencies in math, grammar and languages.

With a handful of FTAs already signed and another batch on the horizon, Colombia’s entrance into the global community is quickly taking shape, and this will ultimately allow more connections and transfers not only of goods but also social and cultural models. Education will be greatly affected as a result, as more Colombians realise how important it is not only to obtain a degree but also to receive a more integral education. These conditions lay the foundation for a variety of opportunities to form alliances with local educational institutions and exchange programmes, as well as support growing demand for improved education in specialised fields that are currently lacking in the country.

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The Report: Colombia 2013

Education chapter from The Report: Colombia 2013

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