Higher Education: Peru and Beyond
An Uncertain Future
With the phrase “fragile, though tenacious beasts,” philosopher George Steiner attempted to describe the complex circumstances that permeate the institutional life of universities throughout the world, in his book Errata: An Examined Life. Despite today’s sweeping changes in universities in Latin America and beyond, these complex circumstances, this fragility, this determination, have existed almost since the foundation of universities more than a thousand years ago and even before the existence of nation-states. Universities have been constantly submitted to the most varied political tensions, social demands, financial uncertainties and ideological ambiguities—thus, the ensuing fragility. Yet, universities’ long historical track record also reveals that they have known how to adapt, with a varying degree of success, to changing times and situations in which they have had to develop their educational activities. Universities have shown a surprising capacity for resilience—hence the tenacity—and they have demonstrated a decided ability to overcome the most unforeseeable hardships and to deal head-on with world trends that have stood in the way of their mission and deep philosophical sentiments.
Perhaps the most relevant of the recent sweeping changes—both for its speed and scope—has been the massive expansion of higher education. In 2009, 164.5 million students were enrolled worldwide, according to UNESCO data (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Global Education Digest 2011. Montreal: 2011). That is double the number of students enrolled a little over ten years earlier, in such diverse regions as Asia, North America, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. The development of post-industrial societies, the expansion of service sectors in increasingly knowledge-based economies and the growth of the middle class explain these changes in the university system to a large degree. As a result of this transition from elite to mass education, the institutional heterogeneity of higher learning has increased, and its quality—in more than a few cases—has been seriously affected.
Peru has not been immune to these processes, but development here has followed a course with peculiarities worth mentioning. The huge explosion in the growth of higher education in Peru took place between 2005 and 2010, even though the key to this phenomenon is actually to be found earlier, in 1996, when Law 882 established “conditions and guarantees to promote investment in educational services in order to modernize the educational system and to widen its offerings and coverage.” Perhaps even more important, the new law sought to “promote free private initiative to carry out activities in the field of education (…) whether for-profit or non-profit.” To facilitate this new orientation of the educational system, the Peruvian state designed diverse tax incentives benefiting for-profit institutions, among which was the granting of a tax credit equivalent to 30 percent of the amount invested in education.
The effects of this new legal framework soon became apparent. Between 1996 and 2010, the Peruvian university population grew to 493,000 students, but 74.3 percent of that increase corresponded to expansion in private higher education, mostly at for-profit universities. Sixteen new private institutions were created between 2005 and 2010. At the beginning of the last decade, the panorama of higher education in Peru had experienced radical growth, since the 57 universities (28 public, 29 private) surged to 100 (35 public, 65 private) in 2010.
These numbers also reflect the composition of the university population: if in 1996, 60 percent of students studied at public universities and 40 percent in private ones, in 2010, the figures were exactly the opposite (40 percent public, 60 percent private). The private sector has replaced the public one in an irreversible trend. Even as I write these lines, the domination of the private sector in university education increases relentlessly. At the present time, there are 19 proposals for new universities under discussion at the National Council for the Authorization and Operation of Universities. Yet Peruvian citizens are hardly discussing the subject at all.
The consequences of this new scenario are many. First, public universities have reformulated and diversified their money-making strategies to finance their activities. The direct commercialization of products and services—among them, pre-university preparation, graduate-level programs (generally not free), consulting services, laboratory fees, training programs and charges associated with entrance exams—generate almost a quarter (and in some cases, a full third) of total university income.
Second, the massification and proliferation of for-profit universities, some of them of woefully low academic quality, has generated changes in the educational mission, so that the emphasis on acquiring competencies and instrumental skills, which in theory permit a more rapid insertion into the job market, has diminished interest in the formation of citizenship values and development of critical, imaginative, creative and innovative thinking. Many interest groups involved in higher education have deferred to the dangerous idea that arts and humanities are useless ornaments to be eliminated from study plans, since these fields lack practical impact and visible effects in the areas of competitiveness and efficiency that global markets demand to achieve economic success.
Finally, accreditation, a movement that arose to ensure the quality of higher education throughout the world, has come into being only recently in Peru and in minimal fashion, especially compared to other countries in the region such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Colombia. Although it’s true that Peru has accreditation for certain fields of study, the concept of accreditation is still not well enough known or respected to guarantee the process.
Thus the question remains: how can universities respond to these new challenges in an international context in which world economies and societies demand greater generation of knowledge that contributes to global competitiveness and social inclusion? A 2009 World Bank study, The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities, by Jamil Salmi, shows that three ingredients are absolutely necessary to reach international standards: a high concentration of talent among both students and faculty; a combination of tangible and intangible resources to create an environment that favors learning and foments investigation; and, finally, an administration that provides incentives for strategic vision, innovation and flexibility, in order to effectively manage available resources without falling into the temptations of bureaucracy that tend to engulf all institutions, not just universities.
The most serious universities in the world have become convinced that the hard core of their purpose in society is tied to their educational mission, the pedagogical model they promote, and the values their professors transmit in the classroom. In these halls of learning, something is produced that can be compared metaphorically to magic. These are spaces of significant and pertinent learning, thanks to professors who stimulate interaction with students and who, during this same process, open all our minds to new questions and reflections so we may all grow not only in knowledge but in humanity.
It follows that the principal mission of universities is to educate our youth, that is, to form them through knowledge, technical abilities and rigorous analysis, but also with values, imagination, creativity, a sense of responsibility and a vocation for service to our country and the world in which they will live for the rest of their lives.
To fulfill this mission, as Martha Nussbaum suggests in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), three requisites are essential. They are apparently simple, but take on enormous pedagogic importance for us professors and academics—very often seen as a strange kind of folk—if we are to guide the students who pass through our classrooms to become an authentic elite leadership, as the well-known Peruvian Jorge Basadre calls it in Ante el problema de las “élites” (Lima: Talleres Gráficos P.L. Villanueva, 1968): individuals who are conscious of personal and professional challenges that they will have to face throughout their entire lives.
In the first place, societies need students who cultivate their humanity, that is to say, young men and women who have the capacity for self-criticism and take hard looks at their lives and projects, who question their traditions, stereotypes, prejudices and beliefs that have been imposed by self-complacent authorities and the inertia of habit; who aspire to lead a life that questions beliefs accepted as natural and only accepts those that survive because reason has shown they are coherent and justified.
Second, it is necessary that young students imagine, feel, understand and see themselves not only as citizens of a particular country, region or locality, but realize that they form part of an inevitably international reality and that, in this context, what happens with other human beings who are different in their beliefs and physical aspect is something that is relevant to them and that should concern them as part of their own lives.
Last, university formation ought to be nourished by the capacity to think about being in someone else’s shoes, to understand their emotions, aspirations and desires. In other words, students ought to be able to decipher the enigmatic and mysterious meanings of other lives. Art in general and literature in particular enable us to interpret these mysteries through our imaginations. This activity enriches us and expands our own existence with a depth and intensity that allows us to overcome obstacles in a world filled with injustice and misery, evils that we all aspire to do away with, aiming to achieve just, economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable societies.
To apply this formative philosophy for higher education, not only in Peru but throughout the world, would permit us to better confront the uncertain future that is awaiting us.
Fall 2012, Volume XII, Number 1
Felipe Portocarrero Suárez is rector of the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru. He was a Visiting Fellow, Program on Philanthropy, Civil Society and Social Change in the Americas (PASCA), DRCLAS and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Harvard Kennedy School in 2002. He is co-editor of Philanthropy and Social Change in Latin America, David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin America, distributed by Harvard University Press (2006).
Felipe Portocarrero Suárez es rector de la Universidad del Pacífico en Lima, Peru. Fue Investigador Visitante en PACSA, DRCLAS y el Centro Hauser para Organizaciones Sin Fines de Lucro, Harvard Kennedy School en 2002. Fue co-editor de Philanthropy and Social Change in Latin America, David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin America, distribuido por Harvard University Press (2006).
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