Will peace in Colombia mean progress for universities?

Colombia paz protesters

On 24 November 2016, the great and the good of Colombian higher education made their way through Bogotá’s noise, congestion and pollution, past the graffiti murals of exotic birds, serpents and mythological scenes, to a plush reception hosted by the US embassy.

The occasion was a Thanksgiving lunch. But the Colombians could surely have been forgiven if they had preferred to give thanks not so much for the American harvest as for the dividend that they hope to reap from the revised peace deal that their government had signed that very day with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc): the Marxist guerrilla organisation infamous for its more than half century of involvement in kidnappings, extortion and the drugs trade.

The deal – whose original version had been rejected by Colombian voters in a referendum the previous month – was ratified by the country’s parliament within a week. And the higher education sector is poised to carry out the research and establish the access programmes that will help clarify issues of social justice and reintegrate the ex-combatants: tasks likely to be crucial in building long-term peace.

But as well as fulfilling this national agenda, many leaders of higher education institutions are hoping that the more stable post-conflict environment will also enable them to become more effective players within global higher education. Indeed, the reason that the US ambassador was able to gather so many of them together for stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie was that they were already in Bogotá – once reputed to be among the most dangerous big cities in the world – to attend the eighth Latin America and the Caribbean Higher Education Conference, which was devoted to the theme of internationalisation.

Still, the dining room would have had to be the size of a university refectory to accommodate the close to 300 leaders of the country’s complicated tertiary education system. The system includes 82 universities, as well as assorted “university institutions” (that award only undergraduate degrees), technological institutions and professional technical institutions. Claudia Aponte González, a consultant who works with Colombia’s ministry of national education, told the conference that the ministry is committed to promoting internationalisation, but had struggled to come up with a one-size-fits-all model. There were institutions located in border cities; institutions committed to “Bolivarian” pan-Andean ideals; institutions that offered only online courses; institutions focused on regional development; institutions in special territories such as small Caribbean islands; even institutions in places where the climate was so bad that the ministry had never managed to send someone to carry out an assessment. Each had different ideas about what internationalisation should mean for them.

Major attempts at reform in the sector have proceeded in parallel with the long peace negotiations. President Juan Manuel Santos’ National Development Plan for 2014-18, Todos por un nuevo país (All for a New Country), established education, alongside peace and equity, as one of its three “pillars”. Santos – the winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize – has also announced an ambitious aspiration for Colombia to be the best educated country in Latin America by 2025. Perhaps the most obvious practical consequence of this has been a laborious, ongoing process – carried on with partners such as the British Council – to streamline the country’s system of qualifications, improve the status of technical education and create new pathways into universities.

For international higher education consultant Liz Reisberg, many of the challenges facing the equatorial nation apply across much of Latin America.

“All countries are responding to the challenges of massification, which started 20 to 30 years ago,” she says. “Higher education went from being an elite enterprise to trying to incorporate anywhere between 30 and 60 per cent of the age cohort. [It is currently in the region of 50 per cent in Colombia.] The traditional universities just couldn’t accommodate that…Most of the ministries backed off on the restrictions on setting up universities and allowed very rapid growth with very little quality control.”

As the dust has settled, Reisberg goes on, most countries established systems of quality control. That includes Colombia, and the nation is also notable for “a pretty well-established private sector”, whose elite tier has a level of research productivity on a par with that of the public universities, she says.

Indeed, there seems to be general agreement about the strength of the top Colombian universities. Four institutions – the University of the Andes, the University of Antioquia, the Universidad del Norte and the Pontifical Bolivarian University (UPB), Medellín – feature among the top 50 in Times Higher Education ’s Latin America University Rankings for 2016. That is more than any other country except Chile (11 places) and the regional giants Brazil (23 places) and Mexico (eight). Citation data provided by Elsevier (see graphs opposite and on page 37 and charts on pages 36 and 39) also suggest that Colombia is quickly increasing its research output, whose quality bears comparison with the strongest performers in the region, especially in physics and astronomy.

Colombia was identified last year by Times Higher Education as one of seven nations with the potential to become significant players in global higher education ( “The new breed on the charge”, Features, 24 November). This was on account of its respectable research quality, its increasing research output and its high and growing student enrolment rate.

A report called Education in Colombia, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development last April, also praises many aspects of Colombian higher education. However, it is highly critical of the country’s “outdated, inequitable, and inefficient” system for distributing public resources. Established in 1992, this system allocates 48 per cent of the entire budget for public universities to just three of the 32 institutions, and leaves 20 out of 39 public technical colleges without “regular” subsidies. Given that total student numbers have more than quadrupled since 1992, the system’s “rigidity, lack of definition and scope” make it a major obstacle to progress, the report says.

Growth in output of papers

Graph: Growth in output of papers
Source: Elsevier’s SciVal tool

Colombia’s long decades of civil unrest are, of course, another important background factor to take into account when assessing its higher education. In a PhD thesis titled “Conflict, postconflict, and the functions of the university: lessons from Colombia and other armed conflicts”, awarded by Boston College in 2013, education consultant Ivan Pacheco describes how the conflict was “part of the day-to-day life” of many public universities. “Struggles for the political and economic control of campuses have been bloody and claimed several victims,” he writes. In one case, about 50 academics and students were kidnapped by guerrillas; elsewhere they were “killed, tortured and disappeared”.

Precisely because of the “almost unquestioned prevalence of the left-wing ideology on campuses”, Pacheco explains, the extreme Right also “decided to take over some public universities, particularly in the north of the country”. Meanwhile, universities’ very autonomy could make them “more attractive to outlaw groups…Corrupt politicians have attempted (and sometimes been able) to gain administrative and political control of these institutions”.

Anyone who visits Bogotá’s “White City” will take Pacheco’s point about “left-wing ideology”. This is the main campus of the National University of Colombia, close to the centre of the capital. Surrounded by a fence, it covers an area of 600 acres, complete with observatory, stadium, children’s playground, pop-up cafe, restaurant and white faculty buildings. At its heart, where little stalls sell food, is the Francisco de Paula Santander Plaza, more often known as “the Che Plaza” on account of the huge painting of Che Guevara on a facade opposite the library.

The leftism of student activists was also apparent in their opposition to plans to reform the sector – including the system for distributing funding – embarked on a year after President Santos took office in 2010. According to the OECD report, the protesters objected to only “one highly controversial clause – to allow for-profit tertiary education institutions”, but the volume of their opposition “caused the whole…reform proposal to fail”.

There seem to be no current plans to revive…