Taking on the Challenges
Higher Education in Colombia
Higher education is a hot topic in Colombia. In 2011, students went on strike and into the streets to protest a proposed reform to the 20-year-old higher education law known as Law 30, saying that the changes would lead to the privatization of education. Thirty-two presidents of public universities—including myself—openly declared our opposition to the philosophy behind the proposed reforms. The issue of higher education swept through the media, chat rooms, classrooms and cocktail parties.
The debate was often quite specific: the bill to reform the law had 165 articles, but I will refer to just a few of them. The fundamental question at stake was this: is university education an inalienable right or a commercial good? I (and many others) believe that equal access to education for Colombians, no matter what their background, is a right and a long-term national investment in the country’s future.
Eventually, President Juan Manuel Santos withdrew the bill and called for a national dialogue about higher education that would result in a new proposal. Universities, academic institutions and associations of university professors and students have gone to work, beginning a process of reflection to generate a new bill in a year or two.
Both the government-sponsored bill and the objections against it present an excellent opportunity to understand the problems of Colombian higher education and the solutions proposed by diverse groups within the society. The Colombian case can also shed light on the situation of higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean in general. The details may differ; this discussion will illustrate the predominant positions of governments, some multilateral organization, the academia and student opposition groups.
During the two years leading up to the proposed reform, there had been much controversy about the financing of public universities and access to subsidized loans for low-income students who wished to study in private institutions. All throughout 2010, attempts had been made to change the sections pertaining to financing in the General Law for Higher Education. But Congress did not approve the changes, possibly because they were presented in the last six months of a government that had lasted eight years. The new government of Juan Manuel Santos committed itself from the start to elaborate a bill that would greatly modify Law 30, which had become obsolete and inadequate for resolving today’s problems of higher education.
One of the most contentious aspects of the proposed reform was the introduction of for-profit universities to Colombia. Up until now, despite a very dynamic higher education system, there’s never been a for-profit university. In a public act, the Colombian president put special emphasis on for-profit universities as a new contribution by the corporate sector to the solution of the problems of insufficient student slots and inadequate funding. Speaking in different venues throughout the country, Santos cited international examples to support his position in favor of for-profit universities advocated by the Education Ministry; the most important was Brazil, where this type of university was introduced during the past government of President Lula da Silva.
One important objection to Santos’ proposal pointed out that if business people supported these for-profit universities, they would expect a return for their investment. Their profit would necessarily come from student tuition, much of which will be paid with subsidies from the state. Thus, the for-profit institution, allegedly funded by business, would in reality principally cost the state and the families who wish to educate their children.
Moreover, many non-profit private universities declared that they felt threatened by the competition from the proposed introduction of these low-cost institutions, which can contract professors on an hourly basis without benefits, while the established private institutions must maintain high-quality faculty and expensive technological structures, especially if they wish to receive accreditation for their programs and carry out scientific research. The example of Brazil was unconvincing, because although Brazil does indeed permit for-profit universities, the country’s emblematic public universities are aggressively financed and they are the ones, not the recent arrivals, that sustain the quality of higher education. In the United States, such for-profit universities have been criticized as mediocre halfway solutions to the challenge of higher education, with a very high dropout rate, often generating unfulfilled expectations for employment; moreover, these universities have created a problem for the federal student loan system because of delayed payments and bankruptcies.
In the recent U.S. presidential campaign, people voiced concern that the principle of equality of opportunities was threatened by this type of institution, because it provides a poor education to poor people without giving them a competitive edge in the labor market. The proposal to allow for-profit universities was withdrawn by the president during the discussion of the bill, before the bill itself was withdrawn. But it is an important point to bring up here since it reveals a certain attitude favoring privatization.
A second large theme in the proposal was the financing of public universities. The central problem was easy to see: Law 30 has kept public university budgets frozen for more than 15 years. Back then, legislators, surely with good intentions, had decreed that the budget of public universities should be adjusted annually according the cost-of-living index (IPC). At the time, this was seen as a victory for the universities, but after a while it was revealed as a Pyrrhic victory. The university system practically doubled in the number of undergraduate students and multiplied several times over the number of graduate students. Universities developed new technological needs such as information and computing systems, instruments for online and distance education. They also needed new classrooms and laboratories, as well as maintenance and renovation of existing infrastructure because of natural wear-and-tear. All these expenditures, well above the increase in the cost-of-living index, were not anticipated, and the universities had to partially cover the costs through tuition fees, as well as by providing paid consulting services (research is conducted through externally financed projects). However, in Colombia, not much income is generated through charging overhead on such projects. Moreover, new laws, not covered under the rising IPC, created additional costs. The cost of social security rose; a series of productivity stimuli generated an increase in professorial salaries; buildings had to be brought up to new earthquake-resistant standards and be made handicapped-accessible.
The situation at the present moment is that the state contribution to the public university is barely enough to pay salaries; in some universities, it’s not even enough for that. The rest of the money has to be raised. This effort has reached its limits without having to raise tuition, a measure that would be catastrophic in the Colombian system because it would exclude the poor.
The government proposed two basic ways (simplifying) to resolve this problem. The first was a gradual increase in the budget, 1 percent above the IPC the first year, 2 percent the second year, and 5 percent for the five following years. But this increase would be subject to commitments to an increase in student slots and in quality—commitments that would carry a much greater cost than the percentage offered. The second proposal (basically directed at private universities) was an increase in contributions to tuition loan funds and a decrease in interest rates (the system was on the verge of collapse because debtors were unable to pay). The proposal also included the creation of a fund offering a small subsidy (barely enough for the cost of transportation) for the poorest students. The Colombian loan system at the present time only covers tuition; moreover, loans—even those with a low-interest rate—are difficult to pay, especially given the starting salaries for young professionals (Observatorio Laboral Ministerio de Educación Nacional http://www.graduadoscolombia.edu.co/html/1732/channel.html).
The main objection to these proposals lay in the discrepancy between the government’s stated goals for improvement in coverage and quality and the resources that it was offering (see my own October 31, 2010, editorial in El Tiempo, as well as the Universidad de los Andes Center for the Study of Economic Development 2011 report, “La educación superior de calidad cuesta. Modelo prospectivo de análisis de inversiones, costos y financiación de la oferta para una educación superior con estándares de calidad, cobertura y pertinencia en Colombia a 2020.”)
The current average annual state subsidy to the public universities per student is about US$2,000; the reform bill’s financial proposal combined with plans for growth would progressively decrease this amount. Private tuition costs are considerably higher (US$6,000 to $18,000 yearly), a fact that leads low-income youth to seek the lowest loan possible to study at low-cost programs and universities (programs of chalk and chalkboard, institutions without accreditation, without laboratories, without fulltime professors). At the same time, the loan system hardly covers 20 percent of the students, and the proposal could not increase this figure to much more than 25 percent. Some elements of the government proposal changed slightly during the discussion. It was proposed that the increase in funding for public institutions not be gradual, but rather 3 percent from the very first year, and that half of this increase not be subject to new requirements.
The third great block of reforms, which generated great discussion, was related to autonomy and university governance. In this area, the bill did not propose great changes. Initially it limited the activities of the ruling university bodies (cuerpos colegiados altos), introduced minor changes in the makeup of the higher education councils and tacitly diminished the decision-making powers of the Academic Boards. But these limitations were soon withdrawn. Nevertheless, this was a much discussed topic because the student movement demanded changes in university governance: namely, much greater representation in the participating bodies of students and professors and direct election of president and deans. This will be one of the points of discussion in the future because many professors disagree with the position of the students. The experience of this apparent democracy of simple majorities without taking into account academic merit has had very unfortunate outcomes in other countries in the region.
University autonomy is a principle established by the Constitution in Colombia but never incorporated in a body of law. The Colombian Association of Universities prepared a bill for a Law on Autonomy, which brought together all the legal jurisprudence for the past 20 years, to be discussed along with the proposals for the Law on Higher Education.
In Colombia, as in many of the countries in the region, only 30 percent of college-age youth actually have access to higher education, and even then, the quality of education is not very good. There is a balanced system of both private and public universities with a very uneven quality in the two groups. Tuition costs in the public sector are practically symbolic; in the private sector, tuition is directly related to quality: very high for good universities and for complex programs, sometimes in those very fields with the most impact on development such as science, engineering and health.
In the opinion of representatives of the highest levels of the Education Ministry, higher education is not a fundamental right (as are basic and high school education), but rather a privilege, and one has to pay for privileges. In a chronic situation of scarce public resources, the government limits its contributions and transfers responsibility to the families through loans. Clearly, public higher education is insufficiently financed yet demands a much higher performance in cost per student than does the high-quality private university. Such demand inevitably leads to a deterioration in the quality of public education, as happened in Colombia to primary and high school education in the past fifty years If the present policy for higher education persists, public universities will lose their capacity to compete with the private universities for good professors, as well as the possibility of keeping up infrastructure.
The problem can be summed up in a simple form: higher education in many examples in history has been either an instrument for social mobility and the promotion of equality of opportunities, or a generational transfer of privileges for the purchase of high-quality education and thus of leadership positions in the marketplace and government. The higher education policy that Colombia adopts can swing the balance in either direction.
Fall 2012, Volume XII, Number 1
Moisés Wasserman is the former rector of the National University of Colombia.
Moisés Wasserman es el ex-rector de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
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