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Colombia seeks the best path forward for its tertiary sector

Colombian higher education institutions are becoming increasingly internationalised, with more scholarly exchanges, more joint programmes, and more student mobility programmes than in previous years.

Many want to see the country continue on this upward streak, and a national strategy towards internationalisation is promising, yet there are differing views on how to achieve future goals which are hindering progress. ICEF Monitor takes an in-depth look at the market’s development in recent times.

An attractive partner

Colombia is home to nearly 9 million 15-24 year olds, nearly 98% of whom are literate. Today Colombia is one of the largest sending markets in Latin America after Brazil, and the majority of student referrals are made through agents. The top destinations are the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.

Loan programmes and scholarships managed by such organisations as the Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad (ICETEX) and the public-private partnership COLFUTURO help students fund their studies abroad.

International education is highly valued in Colombia; according to BMI, a recent survey of employers found that 58% preferred to hire people who had earned advanced degrees abroad.

It’s no wonder why Colombia is eager to forge ties with countries around the world and continues to expand its reach beyond the usual top five destinations.

For example, earlier this month the seven-year-old Programa de Movilidad Académica welcomed a group of Chinese students who will teach Mandarin at selected universities for one year through an ongoing mobility programme with China. Colombia has also recently strengthened ties with Holland through the Dutch organisation Nuffic.

Colombia’s higher education on the up and up

The Colombian higher education sector, once thought of as under-performing, has been upgraded remarkably in the last decade. In 2002, the government launched an education improvement programme called Revolución Educativa (Education Revolution). Tertiary enrolments have increased since then, however Colombia is still below the OECD average.

OECD numbers represent important benchmarks because Colombia has worked toward joining the organisation, and in January of this year, President Juan Manuel Santos revealed that the country now sits atop the list of nations to be accepted.

If admitted, Colombia would receive an influx of foreign aid earmarked for the economy and state institutions.

The OECD’s 2012 Reviews of National Policies for Education: Tertiary Education in Colombia notes that between 2007 and 2011, the country’s total education spending increased by over 43%, and there was a corresponding rise in the percentage devoted to higher education. Colombia’s expenditure in that area is higher than average for Latin America and near the OECD average.

In addition, since 2002 the number of teaching staff rose by 32.6%, and there was an improvement in teachers’ qualifications, with fewer having only bachelor’s degrees, and more having earned masters degrees and doctorates.

Colombia’s National Policy on Education 2011-2014 includes the promotion of internationalisation as a specific strategy to be implemented in the tertiary education sector.

The government has established a National Programme for Advising Higher Education Institutions on Internationalisation, led by the Ministry of National Education in collaboration with a group of 23 universities.

Some main points of the strategy are:

  • Including a global dimension in all academic programmes and in all institutions.
  • Linking internationalisation to accreditation processes, as well as approval and review of academic programmes.
  • Mainstreaming second language requirements into the curriculum in order to increase second language competence.
  • Increasing international and student and faculty mobility by, among other things, reviewing migratory regulation for exchange students.
  • Incentivising institutions to develop national/international/cross-sector partnerships for teaching, research, and public services.
  • Developing a more coordinated approach between COLCIENCIAS (Administrative Department of Science, Technology, and Innovation) and higher education and research institutions regarding the scholarship programmes for graduate studies abroad.
  • Increasing Colombia’s presence in relevant international fora and organisations.
  • Increasing coordination and communication between offices of international education in order to share practices and coordinate international presence.

Ban on for-profit education providers holding nation back?

Many indicators for Colombia point upward, but the tertiary sector still suffers from high drop-out rates, low accessibility, and inequitable funding, with the lion’s share of public cash going to only three universities.

While there is broad consensus on the need to improve matters, there has been considerable disagreement about the path forward. In 2011, President Santos backed a set of reforms – known as Law 30 – that would have brought wholesale changes to the tertiary sector. But after fierce pushback from the public, those reforms were shelved.

What was at issue? In Colombia, for-profit higher education is forbidden by law. The tertiary sector is comprised of public universities and private not-for-profit providers. The latter are almost exclusively the domain of students from wealthy families. Graduation from these schools guarantees access to greater opportunity.

The reforms Santos proposed involved new funding initiatives along with opening the tertiary sector to for-profit educational providers. His stated goal was to increase tertiary enrolments to more than 2 million by 2014, to achieve 50% enrolment of undergraduate-age Colombians, and to boost quality and resources to increase the system’s international competitiveness.

The example that Santos touted in his reform package was that of Brazil, which through opening its tertiary sector to for-profit providers increased the number of university students from 1.8 million to nearly 6 million between 2000 and 2012. Today 75% of Brazilian students attend for-profit institutions.

But there is a problem with the Brazilian model.

Access has been expanded, but the market is flooded with low cost, low quality schools. Their lack of pedigree does little for Brazil’s international competitiveness, and leaves the country’s elite schools as exclusive as they ever were.

The battle between Santos and students was, at times, bitter.

Opponents of the reform, such as student leader Sergio Fernandez, saw the example Santos touted as a failure, and the plan in general was considered a form of forced privatisation, a label Santos disputed.

Fernandez described the reform plan as follows:

“The proposed legislation would have made it possible for private US universities, established in Colombia, to receive the same type of public financing as public universities. Tuition could be increased in response to market demands without public oversight, as a direct application of the Free Trade Agreement concerned with fair entrepreneurial competition, also signed last year by the Santos administration. The elimination of services would be replaced by student loans issued by banks interested in expanding into new markets as a way to deal with the global financial crisis.”

Many students and professors believed this introduction of more student loan opportunities through private for-profit companies would only worsen the situation in Colombia: “Most the country is poor, they cannot afford to repay loans, with high interest rates set by private companies,” said María Ortiz, a historian and former history student at the National University.

Colombian higher education funding measures

An estimated 3.2 million secondary school graduates do not continue their education due to lack of opportunity. A 2011 DANE study (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística) revealed that the proportion of males in the labour force with no technical, undergraduate, or graduate degree stood at 57.3%, with the percentage for women standing at 45.8%. Both percentages decreased slightly from the previous year, but the numbers still highlight the need to increase access to higher education.

The OECD’s report praises Colombia’s educational progress in recent years, but recommends expanding enrolment and improving equity, increasing quality and relevance, making governance and finance more responsive, increasing student places more evenly throughout the country, and developing improved loan and scholarship systems.

Some positive measures have been taken by the government. In late 2012, regional politicians and university presidents met to approve the terms of a more than US $112 million line of credit aimed at university construction and research projects. Santos has allocated roughly US $251 million in government funds for education. And the 32 rectors of the State University System have entered into dialogue with government officials about how to secure additional money for the higher education system.

Colombian student groups are explicit about their demands for the tertiary sector. They want the government to guarantee financing of the university system, for the universities to be autonomous and democratic, and for standards to be improved. So far, the government has been mum on any further plans to radically remake the sector, which leaves matters in a holding pattern, at least for now.

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