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Signs of continuing growth in Ecuador

Ecuador is emerging as an increasingly interesting Latin American market for international recruiters and educators. There are at least two reasons why:

  • Ecuador’s real GDP growth in 2014 stands at around 4%, which puts it third in the region behind only Bolivia (5.2%) and Colombia (4.8%), and ahead of Peru (3.6%) and, notably, Brazil (0.3%). This growth rate is predicted to remain stable for 2015.
  • Since the adoption of its new constitution in 2008, Ecuador has been pouring investment and brainpower into revamping its education system.

As we reported earlier this summer, the sweeping changes to the education system have included:

  • Increasing investment in higher education to 1.86% of national GDP;
  • The establishment of a university accreditation process through Consejo de Evaluacion Acreditacion y Aseguramemiento de la Calidad de la Educacion Superior (CEAASES);
  • A sharp increase in the number of scholarships available through SENESCYT, a raise in university salaries, and a slashing of interest rates on student loans, pushing them from 12% down to 4.6%;
  • Signing up to take part in the OECD’s international PISA tests for student assessment beginning in 2015;
  • Dozens of new or strengthened education agreements with countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Malaysia, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US;
  • The establishment of four new public universities, one of which, Yachay, aspires to be an internationally recognised, city of knowledge inspired by technologically sophisticated research and business hubs in South Korea and Singapore.

Today, we are pleased to present an interview with Mr Ricardo Dávila, Managing Director of World Education Access (WEA). Mr Dávila confirms the growing sense of optimism in Ecuador about the country’s stability and an increasing trend of parents investing in their children’s education, an important indicator for the future.

Stability is key

In the first segment of our two-part video interview with Mr Dávila, he emphasises the importance of the political and financial stability ushered in via the presidency of Rafael Correa. President Correa was first elected in 2006 and his re-election in 2013 will see him hold the presidency until 2017. Mr Correa’s government has significantly increased the proportion of the country’s total budget allocated to education (as well as health), and Mr Dávila notes that it has also created many new scholarships for study abroad under its Ministry of Science and Education, SENESCYT. As a result, says Mr Dávila, investing in education is becoming part of the culture of the country, and students and parents are growing increasingly interested in study abroad ESL programmes, short-duration and summer programmes, and one-year study programmes for high school students. He sees such types of courses as jumping off points for longer programmes such as bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One reason ESL studies are so popular and important, says Mr Dávila, is low English proficiency among many Ecuadorian students, especially those studying in public schools. Mr Dávila sees a current trend where private school students can usually progress to university studies at a foreign institution after about three months of ESL studies, while public school students need on average nine months.

Study abroad interests are diversifying

Ecuadorians are going abroad to study in growing numbers. The most recent UNESCO figures show 10,926 Ecuadorians study abroad, with Spain, the US, and Cuba as the largest recipients of students (3,609, 2,092, and 1,557 respectively). Mr Dávila notes that students’ interests are now expanding to include countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Malta, Russia, and the UK. However, he says, Spain remains particularly interesting because of its Spanish-language courses, which of course do not pose the same challenge of developing English language skills to the level required for advanced study. Whereas business courses used to be the main study area of interest for Ecuadorian students, Mr Dávila adds there is now demand for everything from architecture to civil engineering.

A greater emphasis on quality at home

Before 2008, as the Pulitzer Centre explains, Ecuador’s higher education sector “…focused on ensuring that students received a degree, no matter their actual abilities. Every high school student was able to attend university if he or she wanted to, regardless of academic accomplishment.”

This has changed significantly since the election of President Correa and the 2008 constitution. The constitution allowed President Correa to progress rapidly at overhauling the culture of education in Ecuador, so that an old notion of “paying” for a degree was replaced by a new one of “earning” a degree.

The transition to a new education ethos was abrupt: in 2012 the government shut down 14 universities because they did not meet the academic standards determined by CEAACES, the country’s accrediting agency. The move was controversial, as about 40,000 students then had to figure out how to complete their education. To this day, there are still protests about the dramatic reforms of the education sector, as well as others. But overall, the reforms to the education sector are increasing the degree of oversight at universities as well as creating more consistency in the quality and level of students. Students now have to pass an aptitude test to get into public universities, and as time passes, the students graduating from public universities should be more able to enter the economy on solid footing – alongside their peers from private universities.

Scholarships focused on “brain gain”

Key to Ecuador’s future, according to President Correa, is the development of a knowledge economy. He has said:

"Without human talent, Ecuador won't advance. We lack the minimum critical mass of top-flight professionals needed to spur the country's development."

For this reason, many of the new government scholarships for study abroad that have been introduced in recent years come with the requirement that recipients come home upon graduating to enrich their home economy. One example of this is the Open Call programme, a generous postgraduate scholarship that offers US$250,000 for flights, tuition, and living costs so long as students work in Ecuador for two years for every year of study abroad. Students studying in science and technology fields get priority given the Ecuadorian government’s goal of developing this area of the economy (the economy is still mostly based around raw materials). Speaking to Fox News Latino, Allan Goodman, president of the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE), says of the programme:

“There's real integration between education and labour in ways that I don't see in a lot of countries. It seems to me they read the playbook for best practices to make this work and they've adopted all of them."

The Ecuadorean government is focused on the intended outcomes of the programme: to reverse a potential brain drain associated with study abroad and to attract more talent home. Fox News Latino adds, “In order to ensure that beneficiaries honour the agreement to return, they or relatives must sign contracts promising to repay if a student doesn't come back, or drops out, and putting up collateral such as a home. When students return home, they will be placed in jobs in universities and state institutions, generally teaching and doing research.” For additional background on scholarship programmes, please see our earlier Market Snapshot on Ecuador.

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