Since 2002, when the government began the implementation of a programme known as Education Revolution (Revolución Educativa), Colombia has made significant strides towards expanding enrolment at all levels. Quality also became a priority, though improvements in this area have been difficult to implement and the sector continues to face challenges. While recent international and national evaluations show small improvements, they also reflect substantial inequalities between urban and rural areas, socio-economic backgrounds, and public and private sectors.

At the tertiary level, the increase in demand over the past decade has put added pressure on a system struggling with insufficient funding. The government attempted to introduce an ambitious reform in early 2011 designed to address some of the most pressing issues at the tertiary level – namely, expanding enrolment, improving equity and making funding more effective – but wide-scale opposition led to the withdrawal of the proposal in late 2011. Nonetheless, the national debate on education reform continues, and the sector is likely to remain a priority for the re-elected government of President Juan Manuel Santos.


Colombia’s education system is divided into four levels. Pre-school consists of three years of instruction for children under six years of age, and only one year is compulsory. Basic education comprises grades one to five, also known as basic primary, and grades six to nine, known as lower secondary. Grades 10 and 11 make up the upper secondary level. Tertiary education encompasses vocational and technical training and university education. A total of 10 years of schooling are mandatory: one year of pre-school plus nine years of basic education (up to grade nine).

The Ministry of National Education (Ministerio de Educación Nacional, MEN) administers public funds for the sector and sets quality standards for educational institutions. The 1991 Constitution has declared education a right and a public service to be delivered directly by the government or by private entities under the supervision of the government, and has established the political and administrative decentralisation of the education system. In 1993-2001 a series of reforms was implemented to define the structure of the sector in accordance with constitutional principles.

Since the roll-out of Revolución Educativa, the focus has been on expanding coverage, improving quality and strengthening the institutional capacity of MEN. As a result, between 2002 and 2009 there was a rapid expansion in the number of offerings in the public sector, with the creation of more than 1.5m new places at the basic and upper secondary level, an increase of 20.3%. Conversely, private sector offerings decreased by 16.6%, or 363,077 places, in the same period. Consequently, the offer at the basic and upper secondary level is heavily concentrated in the public sector, which accounted for 84% of total enrolment in 2012.


The increase in services enabled Colombia to make advances in coverage at all levels, particularly at the secondary level. According to MEN, between 2002 and 2012 lower secondary enrolment increased from 57% to 71%, while upper secondary enrolment rose from 29% to 41%. Even so, upper secondary enrolment remains low, particularly in rural areas. Gross coverage is much higher than net coverage – in 2012 gross coverage in primary and lower secondary education surpassed 100% – which indicates a considerable degree of repetition, as well as a significant number of students entering the school system at later ages. Even though the overall drop-out rate fell from 8% in 2002 to 5% in 2012, it remains higher in rural areas. According to the World Bank, the economic cost of not working and the lack of relevance to the labour market are among the reasons associated with high drop-out rates among basic and secondary education students in Colombia’s rural areas.

The school system has not seen added pressure from the expansion in enrolment. The number of students in basic and upper secondary education has actually fallen from 11.2m students in the public and private sectors in 1999 to 10.2m in 2012, as a result of Colombia’s demographic transition; with slower birth rates and an ageing population, there are fewer school-age children. This, in turn, has reduced demand and pressure on basic and upper secondary education, giving the country the opportunity to focus its resources on improving quality standards.


Despite the advances in coverage of the past decade, in 2013 an estimated 1.1m children between the ages of five and 16 were still outside the educational system, according to MEN, largely a result of poverty and the difficulty of accessing schooling in rural areas. MEN data indicate that Colombians in lower socio-economic strata have on average two fewer years of schooling. Moreover, for every 100 students in rural areas, only 48 complete upper-secondary education. In urban areas this figure rises to 82.

In the past few years the government has made efforts to expand access. To this end, a number of public-private partnerships have been developed in two categories: subsidised education and concessions. Under the subsidised model, the government transfers resources to private entities that provide educational services in areas where the public sector offer is insufficient or lacking. In the second option, a concession is awarded to a private entity, which becomes responsible for the administration and management of a public institution. First introduced in Bogotá in 1999, the concession model now serves 100,000 students.

The government has tried to reduce the gap between different socio-economic strata and urban and rural areas through a series of initiatives. One of these is the Families in Action Programme, which provides subsidies to households with students between seven and 18 years of age in the lowest economic classes According to MEN, 2.9m families receive assistance under this programme. To ease some of the financial pressure, as of 2012 public schools across the country are also free until the end of upper-secondary schooling. Previously public schools were free until the end of primary schooling. Private schools charge a fee for services but fall under a not-for-profit category in accordance with the law.

Rural and indigenous communities have also benefitted from additional programmes such as the Rural Educational Project (Proyecto Educativo Rural, PER), which adopts differential treatment based on the necessities of students in rural settings, who, due to age, distance or the need to work, are unable to attend the regular system. According to MEN, by 2010 around 1m students had benefitted from this initiative.


Since 2002, total spending on education as a percentage of GDP has ranged from 7.2% to 8.1%, surpassing Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and most European countries, according to the OECD. In real terms sector resources increased 47% from 2002 to 2012, says MEN. Spending per student in relation to per capita GDP was nearly 20% in 2012. Public spending also increased, from 4.4% of GDP in 2000 to 5% in 2012, with most of the added resources going into financing basic and upper secondary education, which saw funding rise from 3.3% to 3.8% of GDP. This partly compensated for a drop in private spending, which declined from 3.6% to 3% of GDP in the same period.


Despite the increased spending, the quality of the education system is still lagging. In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14”, Colombia ranked particularly low in quality of primary education at 104th place (out of 148 countries) and quality of math and science education at 108th, and only slightly higher in extent of staff training (93rd), quality of the education system (86th), and availability of research and training services (82nd).

Recent national and international evaluations show little improvement in quality. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 evaluation, Colombia was again among the worst performers of the 65 countries evaluated. Out of a possible score of 1000, it received a median score of 376 in mathematics, 403 in reading and 399 in science, well below the OECD mean scores of 494, 496 and 501, respectively. Colombia’s performance showed only a slight improvement in the reading category from PISA’s Net enrollment by school level, 2002-12 2009 rating. Hasan Tuluy, regional vice-president for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, told OBG, “Colombia’s progress in the latest round of PISA was less than expected and indicates the need to reform the education system so that the curriculum is more relevant to the labour market and students have the skills to graduate, succeed in tertiary education and have better job opportunities.”

As with previous assessments, the PISA 2012 evaluation revealed stark differences in the performance of students from higher and lower socio-economic strata, with a 74-point difference on average between the richer and poorer students in maths. Moreover, the differences extended to the public-private divide, with students attending private schools faring better than those in public institutions in all three categories.

Local Measures

At the national level, students’ performance is measured with the evaluation Saber, a standardised test administered by the Colombian Institute for Educational Evaluation (Instituto Colombiano para la Evaluación de la Educación). Saber 5 is administered at the end of grade five; Saber 9, at the end of grade 9; Saber 11, at the end of grade 11; and Saber PRO at the end of the undergraduate level. Recent Saber scores illustrate the same results as PISA, with students in rural areas of lower social strata and in public institutions performing below students in urban areas and in private institutions.

Jean-Christophe Orain, vice-principal of the French high school Louis Pasteur, one of six foreign curriculum private colleges in Bogotá, told OBG, “Because of the difference in quality between the public and private systems, private colleges at the basic and upper secondary level are in high demand and the offer is still limited.” Problems with quality at the basic and upper secondary levels are generally due to the quality of teachers, inefficient use and unequal distribution of resources, and low investment in infrastructure and equipment. Given the decentralisation of the system, schools lack institutional and management capacity. According to Tuluy, quality improvements would require not only more training for teachers but also curriculum adjustments. “Quality improvements could be achieved through a modernisation of teacher preparation, a formalisation of the teaching profession, a reform of the curriculum to cover a wide range of academic and social-emotional skills, and a closer relationship between technical skills, the development sector and the productive sector,” Tuluy told OBG.

Tertiary Education

Tertiary institutions fall under four categories. Universities offer academic programmes from undergraduate degrees through to doctoral degrees and engage in scientific and technological research. This type of institution accounts for the majority of tertiary enrolment – 60.8% in 2013, according to MEN. University institutions are in a second category and offer undergraduate programmes up to a professional degree level, as well as a type of graduate programme known as “specialisation”, but they generally do not engage in research activities. University institutions represent a much smaller portion of tertiary enrolment. Technology institutions offer programmes up to the technologist level and accounted for 29.4% of tertiary enrolment in 2013. Finally, technical institutions offer professional/technical level training and account for 3.9% of enrolment. There were 286 tertiary education institutions in 2013.

Since the 1990s tertiary education has undergone a dramatic transition. In the decade that followed Law 30 of 1992 the private sector grew considerably to respond to the dramatic increase in demand, which was going unfulfilled by the public sector. Up until 2005, for example, the private sector accounted for more than half of tertiary enrolment. However, since then increased efforts on the part of the government have seen the public sector surpass the private sector. According to MEN, in 2013 the public sector represented some 54% of enrolment while the private sector represented 46%. Since 2002 the government’s main policy goals at the tertiary level have been expanding enrolment, improving equity and quality, increasing relevance and making finance more effective.


Even though enrolment for tertiary education has risen significantly in the past decade, it remains below 50%, the target established in the government’s National Policy for Education 2011-14. According to MEN, gross coverage increased from 28.4% in 2005 to an estimated 45% in 2013. However, this figure is inflated as it includes enrolment under the National Training Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, SENA). SENA offers a wide range of training programmes but only a very small share – namely, its technical and technological provision – falls under the tertiary education category. SENA has expanded its coverage significantly since 2002, enrolling millions of people every year and accounting for a little more than 50% of total technological and technical enrolment. Nonetheless, it remains primarily a training institution and, because it is under the purview of the Ministry of Labour, falls outside the scope of MEN and MEN’s quality evaluation mechanisms.

The increase in coverage has been largely due to government efforts to expand access. “The educational offer at the tertiary level is concentrated in large urban centres such as Bogotá, Medellín and Calí,” Luis Enrique Orozco Silva Lopez, professor at Los Andes University and director of UNESCO’s department of tertiary education in Latin America, told OBG.

Promoting Programmes

In recent years the government has tried to address this shortage through a number of regionalisation initiatives. One initiative led to the establishment of Regional Centres of Higher Education (Centros Regionales de Educación Superior, CERES). Launched in 2003, CERES are run through partnerships among educational institutions, national and local governments, and the private sector. In 2012 the CERES network offered nearly 1000 programmes and, according to the OECD, in 2010 accounted for a little over 2% of total enrolled undergraduate students. As part of this regionalisation policy, in the past few years the government has also encouraged educational institutions to make more virtual programmes available in rural and remote areas, and a growing number of institutions are offering this option. Enrolment for virtual forms of education as a percentage of total tertiary enrolment increased from 1.3% in 2000 to around 7.5% in 2012, with 1.5m students taking advantage of this option, according to a study in 2013 by the Colombian Association of Tertiary Education Institutions with Distance and Virtual Learning, in partnership with Virtual Educa, which is a regional platform for the promotion of innovative projects in education.

The Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad has also played an important role in helping expand enrolment by providing financial support to students in need. Lack of financial resources is one of the main barriers to accessing tertiary education, and it is also a major reason why dropout rates remain at around 50%, according to MEN. Marisol Acevedo Zuluaga, academic quality director at Iberoamericana, a private university institution, told OBG, “Many students are unable to enter tertiary education in the first place for financial reasons and many of those who do enter are forced to leave for the same reason. Institutions have yet to establish successful strategies to retain students from less-privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Despite financial barriers for many students in rural areas, the demand for higher education in the rest of the country is high and growing. However, that demand is constrained by the system’s capacity. Despite growth, the number of spots in public and private universities is limited. From 2005 to 2013 the number of students enrolled in specialisation degrees nearly doubled from 45,970 to 82,820, while the number of students enrolled in masters’ and doctorate degrees tripled from 11,980 to 36,149 and 968 to 3467, respectively.


The challenges at the tertiary level are to a large degree a result of inadequate funding. Even though public spending on tertiary education has increased in real terms from COP1.89trn ($945m) in 2000 to COP6.4trn ($3.2bn) in 2012, as a percentage of GDP it has remained stagnant at around 1% for the past decade. With increased demand and ballooning costs associated with research and activities, the tertiary system has struggled with insufficient resources.

Public universities are funded in accordance with articles 86 and 87 of Law 30. Under article 86, funding is based on universities’ 1993 revenues and costs, adjusted for inflation over the years. Article 87 allows for general increases in government contributions up to 30% of the percentage increase in annual GDP growth. “When this formula was designed, it did not forecast the significant increase in costs associated with the expansion in coverage, government polices related to salaries, as well as the development of research and other university activities. For this reason, universities have been covering the additional costs resulting in a significant deficit which universities are now demanding the current government cover,” Orozco told OBG.

The number of students has more than quadrupled from around 450,000 in 1992 when Law 30 was passed to almost 2m. Universities’ own resources have become their most important source of funding. According to MEN, in 2011 universities’ own finances accounted for around 64% of their funding.

The distribution of funds between institutions also varies significantly, and thus the affordability of institutions varies for students. According to a study by the OECD published in 2012, Colombia should improve its efforts to increase accountability in funding allocation as well as reinforce links between funding and performance, which for the moment are non-existent.

Private sector spending has also remained flat at around 1% of GDP. Private institutions rely primarily on student fees for their funding, but are required by law to have a not-for-profit status.


With the rapid expansion in enrolment, quality has become a central concern at the tertiary level. One issue hampering quality improvements is student preparation in the years leading up to the tertiary level. Carlos Felipe Londoño, dean of Antioquia’s Engineering School, told OBG, “Universities in Colombia have a difficult job because the quality of upper secondary education is not good enough.”

The autonomous and independent character of Colombian tertiary institutions has made quality control a challenging task. “Part of the problem in the quality of tertiary education stems from the degree of autonomy afforded to all tertiary institutions in Law 30. As a result of it, the government has little control over programmes and degrees,” Orozco told OBG.

Efforts to improve the quality of the tertiary system have focused primarily on strengthening the accreditation system. The Register of Qualified Programmes (Registro Calificado) establishes minimum quality requirements for programmes that tertiary institutions are authorised to offer and has played an important role in maintaining minimum quality standards. High quality institutional and programme accreditation, however, remains a voluntary process. Since 2000 quality accreditation has been strengthened through the introduction of additional guidelines. The latest of these was issued in 2013 by the National Accreditation Council (Consejo Nacional de Acreditacion, CAN), incorporating, among other things, a national and international visibility factor.

“A national debate regarding new institutional guidelines for accreditation has been initiated in 2014, pointing towards the continuous strengthening of the accreditation process,” Acevedo told OBG. Of the 81 universities in the country in 2013, 30 were accredited, and 19 of those were private institutions.


Another challenge at the tertiary level is the mismatch between labour market needs and the skills with which students are graduating. With more than 60% of students graduating with university degrees, mainly in economics, administration and accounting, the country’s need for technically trained graduates is going unfulfilled.

Acevedo told OBG, “While there have been efforts to create partnerships between academia and the productive sector to bring the offer more in line with labour market trends at the regional and national levels, there is a lack of incentives for students to follow specific careers which are in more demand.” According to Acevedo, the significant difference in salaries between university graduates and professional or technical graduates is helping perpetuate the trend.

The recent expansion of enrolment in technological programmes – which increased from 13.3% in 2005 to nearly 30% of total tertiary enrolment in 2013 – is encouraging. However, the professional/technical share of enrolment fell from 11.4% to 3.9% in the same period. Moreover, according to the OECD, since 2002 the number of universities and university institutions has increased in both the public and private sectors, while the number of technological and technical institutions has fallen, many having become higher-level institutions or absorbed into larger institutions.

According to Londoño, establishing strong links between academia and the productive sector has been challenging. “It is not easy for educational institutes to generate strong ties with the private sector. Education and training involves a long-term relationship and the business community thinks in terms of short-term results,” Londoño told OBG.


The past few years have also seen efforts to increase the internationalisation of Colombian education. Father Julio Jairo Ceballos Sepúlveda, dean at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, told OBG, “A few of the free trade agreements contain clauses about education exchange, and this is helping universities to create international programmes.” One effort to this end was the establishment of a National Bilingualism Programme aimed at teaching a second language at every level. The framework, commonly used throughout Europe, aims to have university graduates reach B2-level proficiency. Graduates from more internationally focused programmes such as international relations or languages are expected to achieve C-level proficiency. However, recent evaluations show this has yet to be achieved.


Given the challenges facing tertiary education, in early 2011, the government unveiled a draft law designed to reform Law 30 and achieve the targets set out in the National Education Plan 2011-14. Among its goals, the proposal aimed to increase internationalisation, strengthen governance and transparency in the sector, increase offer and enrolment, align programmes with market needs and strengthen the quality evaluation process. It also proposed to address the distinctions among tertiary education institutions. There is a debate on whether there should be distinct quality requirements for universities that engage in research and other tertiary-level institutions, such as university and technical institutions that provide less research-heavy training. While technical and technological institutions are not required to engage in research, they are evaluated in this area against the same criteria as universities.

With regards to funding, the proposal called for an annual increase of 3% for the operating formula as well as an additional COP428bn ($214m) between 2012 and 2014, and COP6trn ($3bn) by 2022, to cover costs associated with the reform proposals. The proposal recognises that the projected needs and demands of the tertiary system would not be met, even with the additional funding. Therefore, the draft law sought to attract more private sector investment by opening the tertiary system to for-profit institutions. It specifically called for more private funds to be invested via public-private partnerships between existing non-profit institutions and new for-profit entities.

This became the single most controversial aspect of the reform, overshadowing the rest of the proposals and arousing strong opposition by different stakeholders, in particular students and public universities. A student strike, and subsequent university closures, to protest what was perceived as the privatisation of tertiary education eventually led to the withdrawal of the proposal in November 2011, pending further discussions with stakeholders. As of the first half of 2014 a new proposal had yet to be announced.


The increase in coverage of the past decade represents a noteworthy accomplishment for Colombia. However, the education system continues to face considerable challenges. At the basic and upper secondary levels, quality improvements will depend on the establishment of transparent mechanisms for the allocation of funds and continuous teacher training.

At the tertiary level, reform is likely to remain a priority. The challenges at this level have made it increasingly clear that Law 30 is no longer adequate for the realities of the sector. The idea of opening the tertiary system to for-profit institutions continues to be a sensitive one for Colombians and foreign interest from educational institutions is likely to be limited until the issue is resolved. In the meantime, funding for public universities will remain a central component in the new proposal. For years the country’s academics have proposed tying funding to GDP. “The question now is what portion of GDP should be allocated to tertiary education,” Orozco told OBG. As Colombia continues on the path of economic growth, tertiary education will be key to training the country’s human resources.