Not many countries in the world are currently immersed in significantly reforming their higher education systems. It is well known that making radical changes in higher education is always a risky proposition, which not all governments are willing to consider due to highly volatile political implications. Are there lessons to be learned from those that do attempt these types of reforms? Are their reforms an indication of further changes in higher education at the global level? Let’s look at a relatively unusual case: Colombia.
Colombia is one of the leading countries in the Americas, sadly stereotyped by the media and popular culture for its drug production and good coffee. But there is much more to the country than that. A vibrant and rapidly growing economy, Colombia is a country almost twice the size of Texas with more than 44 million inhabitants, only surpassed in the Americas, in terms of population, by the U.S., Brazil and Mexico. In recent years, the Colombian economy has been rapidly improving and it is poised to become among the top seven largest economies in the Western Hemisphere. Its vast natural resources and its strategic location, make Colombia a natural hub between South America and North America. However, as with other emerging economies, Colombia faces important challenges in its attempts to modernize its economy and society, and to become a more prominent player in the global knowledge-based economy. Not an easy task, considering the economic and political turmoil that is currently buffeting many nations around the world. Colombia has a steep hill to climb: although the Colombian economy is the 29th largest in the world, its GDP per capita is only 20 percent of the U.S. In Colombia, the general unemployment rate is 12 percent, while unemployment of those 17-27 years-old reaches 21.7 percent.
If serious about improving the quality of life for its inhabitants, Colombia must transform itself into a high value-added, knowledge-based economy, which will require more and better prepared college-educated people. Demographics help if we consider that almost 30 percent of Colombians are under 15 years of age. In fact, the number of high school graduates grew by 50 percent from 2002 to 2010, and it is expected to grow another 28 percent by 2014, when almost 800,000 young Colombians will graduate from high school. In response to such large demand, higher education in Colombia is composed by only 286 institutions enrolling 1.6 million students. Although 37 percent of college-age students are enrolled in higher education, Colombia wants to achieve a 50 percent college-age student enrollment rate in only 3 years. Is this a realistic goal?
The problem in responding to such growing demand lies not only in the number and size of higher education institutions, but also in the existence of important deficiencies in terms of quality and relevance of the educational offerings. To cite some indicators, 12 years after a national accreditation system both for institutions and academic programs was established, only 13 percent of undergraduate programs, and 21 higher education institutions are fully accredited. Another dismaying indicator shows that nation-wide only 13.5 percent of FTE members hold a doctorate.
Of course, all of these issues are well-known in Colombia, and, in fact, clearly there seems to exist a consensus among the relevant actors about the need to reform the higher education system. The question is how?
As one of its pillar strategies for national development, the new Colombian government led by Juan Manuel Santos–sworn-in only 10 months ago and still in its honeymoon period – has proposed to reform the higher education law (known as Law 30) which has been in place since 1992. The proposed reform –ambitious, radical, and not exempt from skepticism and criticism- intends to improve the overall quality of the system, to diversify it, and to make it more flexible. A series of measures have been proposed, including the revamping of the accreditation framework, the clarification about the type of institutions and the type of degrees they can offer, a revision of the governance structure for public higher education institutions, an expansion of the current loan system for students, and the adoption of a competency-based curriculum, among other measures.
Central to the debate is the proposed plan to allow the private sector –both national and foreign- to directly invest in higher education. Although in the current system only public and non-profit higher education institutions can operate in the country, everybody knows that a good number of private institutions in reality are for-profit. What the government wants to do is to make this reality more explicit and to regulate the system in order to allow private investors to participate in the provision of higher education services. As explained by Javier Botero, Vice Minister of Higher Education, the proposed law creates a new category of institutions of higher education on the basis of the origin of its resources, known as “mixed” institutions. The rationale used by the government states that new and more funding sources are required in order to expand and improve the higher education system, and that institutions of a corporate nature could serve as an incentive for private sector investors to take part in the higher education sector.
An interesting angle in the debate is that instead of negotiating the new system behind closed doors, the government has turned it into a national debate, through a series of town hall meetings, technical seminars, and internet-based discussion groups. In fact, changes to the original proposal have been considered based on such public discussion. Last week, I was invited to participate at an international forum convened by the Colombian government to discuss pros and cons of the reform. It was a very interesting, lively, and informative dialogue.
As expected, the proposed opening of the sector to private investment is not exempt from controversy. Critics argue that the inclusion of for-profit higher education will be detrimental to funding for public higher education and to the overall quality of higher education, that the for-profit sector will only be interested in low-cost academic programs, and that private investors in the long run may just be interested in higher education in order to speculate. Proponents on the other side argue that the inclusion of private providers will allow the government to dedicate more resources to public education, that with proper regulations quality offered by private providers may be assured, and that, in the end, their presence will make the whole higher education system more competitive.
Others are not as bothered as one might imagine. As expressed by Carlos Angulo, Rector of Universidad de los Andes, a prestigious private university, for-profit universities should not be of concern, assuming that proper and fair regulations are in place. Instead, the country should dedicate itself to finding ways to improve retention in higher education and relevance of academic programs.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? No one knows at this point. The proposal to massively reform higher education will be discussed this summer by the Colombian Congress. Its outcome is still up in the air, but the process will be interesting to observe. Independent of the outcome, the sole fact that Colombians are engaged in bold higher education reforms is, by itself, a major accomplishment. Ultimately, the lessons learned in Colombia will likely be of interest to other parts of the world.