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Colombia aims to move higher education reforms forward

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Improving quality and access to higher education is a key pillar of Colombia’s current National Development Plan, and education is expected to figure prominently in maintaining political and social stability in the wake of a 2016 peace deal that ended the country’s long-running armed conflict
  • The government is now under considerable pressure to enact planned education reforms before national elections in 2018
  • In the meantime, the new peace agreement promises to usher in a period of political and social stability, and has encouraged the government to place a renewed emphasis on internationalisation in Colombian higher education

Late last year, and after five decades of conflict, the Government of Colombia ratified a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It has been called the most comprehensive agreement of its kind ever signed, but this success came only after three sets of negotiations stretching back over three decades and a failed 2016 referendum. Though negotiations with a smaller rebel group – the National Liberation Army – are stalled, and some dissenters from FARC’s Northern Front vow to fight on, the new deal will greatly increase the stability of the country.

Higher education is one of the sectors that stands to benefit in the near term. President Juan Manuel Santos has been saying for years that he wants to make his nation the best educated in Latin America by 2025. The President’s National Development Plan for 2014-2018, Todos por un nuevo país (“All for a New Country”) keys on education as one of its three main pillars, along with peace and equity.

With peace now taking hold, foreign universities may likewise see Colombia more favourably. While the country has solid links with France, Germany, Mexico, and the rest of South America, many US schools have been deterred not only by the civil war, but by the related problems of violent drug trafficking and street crime. Institutions like the University of Delaware, which partnered with Colombia in 2004, and Purdue University, which signed an agreement in 2010, have been exceptions rather than the rule.

Another practical dividend of peace could be found in the country’s public finances. Some observers have speculated that greater stability will free up funds for investment in higher education, but this is unclear. National budgets have many moving pieces, and oil revenue has plummeted in recent years as global oil prices fell off.

Second term President Santos’s economic blueprint includes a 6.6% spending increase for 2017, but this is funded by higher taxes, and is largely earmarked for infrastructure and home building. Still, education is the second largest budget expenditure for Colombia at US$11 billion.

Reforms on the horizon?

Quality and access to higher education are indeed crucial issues for Colombia. In spite of its well-established and well-regarded higher education system, Colombia is one of the ten most unequal countries in the world in terms of access. Public funding of institutions is very uneven and only 9% of children from poor backgrounds go on to tertiary education, while the percentage is 53% for children from wealthy families.

President Santos wants to bring key reforms to Colombian higher education, including a new credit transfer system, improved national quality control protocols, a streamlined national qualifications framework, and new pathways to university studies. He has spoken of fostering more interplay between higher education, research, and the demands of the wider economy. There have also been moves toward increasing mobility between the non-formal, vocational, and university sectors, and bolstering the technical education sector is another national goal.

President Santos also hopes to further internationalise Colombian higher education. The Colombian system is more internationalised than those of some of its regional peers, however there is a way to go before Santos can claim to have reached his goal. The Ministry of Education has limited tools due to university autonomy that gives schools final say on whether, for example, they prioritise English instruction for students.

However, internationalisation is generally agreed upon, within the system, as an important direction for Colombian institutions. And internationalisation was the theme of the 8th Latin America and the Caribbean Higher Education Conference (LACHEC), held in Bogotá in November 2016.

Colombia has forged stronger international linkages. Shortly after the peace agreement was finalised, Colombia and the UK inked a new degree recognition agreement. The deal was signed at the London School of Economics with President Santos in attendance and the British Council acting a facilitator. With the UK one of the leading study destinations for Colombian post-graduate students, proper mutual degree recognition is expected to help boost mobility.

Cooperation with France has been strengthened as well. French Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Jean-Marc Ayrault visited the capital city of Bogotá in December and signed higher education and scientific agreements. His visit came after a pledge of support from France upon news that a Colombia-FARC peace accord had been signed.

Further agreements are also providing for new funding in the Colombian system. The European Union recently signed a grant agreement with the northwestern department of Chocó. Part of this money will be directed toward reforming education services. And some 287,000 tertiary students will benefit from a US$160 million World Bank loan agreed to in January 2017. The new programme is called PACES (Program for Higher Education Access and Quality) and it aims to improve the quality of higher education, and to tackle inequality of access through the use of loans for disadvantaged students. Some of this funding will also be used to support Pasaporte a la Ciencia, or “Passport to Science”, which helps students enroll in master’s and PhD programmes abroad.

Another piece of the plan to improve equity of access involves using ICETEX (Colombian Institute of Education Loans and Technical Studies Abroad) student loans and grants. Through a new programme called Tu Eliges (“You Choose”), ICETEX is expanding student options by eliminating funding caps. This is supposed to allow access to more institutions for poorer students, useful in a country where enrolment costs for private universities are six times what they are for public schools. As an adjunct to this initiative, by 2018 only students in accredited institutions or programmes will be eligible for the loans, a move designed to push more educational institutions to seek accreditation.

The government hopes the new ICETEX grants will help consolidate equity gains made by the grant programme Ser Pilo Paga. Though sometimes imperfect in execution, Ser Pilo Paga has, according to analysis by Foco Economico, “democratised access and generated class diversity in elite universities, historically reserved for students of high strata.”

Tricky timing

Colombia’s civil war spanned five decades. Over that period, 220,000 people lost their lives and more than five million were displaced. The majority of Colombians have never lived in a country without armed conflict until the signing of the 2016 peace agreement.

While there is optimism, obstacles to maintaining the truce lie ahead. Access to education, particularly in previously marginalised communities, will be a key factor in reducing the risk of a return to conflict.

On-the-ground realities change from region to region. Colombia has imposing geography, diverse ethnic makeup, and strong regional identities. However, perhaps the most daunting challenge of all is time.

National elections are coming in 2018, which, with President Santos having reached his term limit, will see a new president occupy the Palacio de Nariño. New leadership could bring new policy directions, but it would be easy to assume that any major deviation from the course Mr Santos has set would prove unpopular in a country eager to move past conflict.

For the moment, the current administration is under considerable pressure to move forward with its planned reforms, so that they are at least underway and have a chance to take hold before the 2018 electoral cycle. Much is at stake for the country, its educational institutions, and their current and prospective international partners. The planned reforms, if successful, will help to further stabilise and strengthen Colombian higher education. Many of those institutions may become more viable and productive partners for foreign educators in the process.

Meanwhile, outbound mobility from Colombia continues to grow with nearly 30,000 students enrolled in tertiary education abroad in 2015. As Colombia’s middle class continues to expand, and the new peace agreement ushers in a period of political and economic stability, that growth trend in outbound student numbers is likely to continue in the years ahead.

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