Higher Education Reform in Colombia: What is at stake?

Versión en español:  http://www.elcolombiano.com/blogs/lacajaregistradora/?p=811

Traductor: Andrés Fernando Cardona Ramírez.


Colombia is a country that occupies unremarkable places in of the two indicators measuring global Welfare: Competitiveness and Income Distribution.

When referring to competitiveness, our country is noted weaknesses in infrastructure, innovation and legal environment. Regarding income distribution, Labor Minister, Rafael Pardo, pointed out that 14 million Colombians do not have a decent job. In addition to this, the Colombian minimum wage is among the lowest in South America and education coverage is far from the average level of developing countries like ours.

However, competitiveness and income distribution are not always compatible. In other words, they may not be under certain ideologically conceived points of view. These will take part in the discussion that will re-start in the country about the future of higher education.

If we talk about competitiveness, there is a variable that has a fundamental weight: entrepreneurship. The success of many of the emerging markets leading the locomotive of the world economy today is due in large part to the emergence and consolidation of new industries: new firms in knowledge-intensive sectors, companies that add value to their processes, goods and services as a central strategy for success.

In terms of entrepreneurship, the Universities are doing a lot, but achieving little. Venture has become a commonplace word in colloquial university talk, especially with the powers of administration and the like. It abounds classes of entrepreneurship, teaching how to formulate business plans and contests that reward the best formulated plans. But, at the same time, we do less and less to deepen the foundations of entrepreneurship: innovation.

The number of new engineering students is declining, which is a discouragement to deepen in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology.  It’s not that we should all be biologists or mathematicians. But a country that wants to be competitive, or a company that claims to be innovative, requires massive think tank to patent new products, design new processes, model new products or services and register software that solves societal needs. And that is not achieved without these sciences. Even a country like Colombia, that has great power in agriculture, agribusiness and natural resources, has few resources dedicated to research, development and study in careers that deal with the rural world and the environment.

If we look at the bulk of business plans that are developed in universities, we find they are based on ideas that have to do with business or traditional industries, marketing, couture, food processing or restaurants and other venues for trade in mass consumption goods. This is not bad, but the reality is that this situation shows how narrow the entrepreneurial universe of our university students truly is, and, more critically, most of these enterprises are not based on structured processes of innovation and the proposed aggregate value tends to be superfluous.

Colombia is a country that does not invest in research and technology. We don’t excel in patents and licenses. Those who go at the head of the pack in competitiveness do: Germany, Korea, Japan, China. In fact, if we look at the research groups that COLCIENCIAS classifies, few stand out for patents, registrations of new software or products or even spin offs. It’s not bad to have books or articles published in indexed journals, fortunately some thrive on this front, but there is an imbalance in the distribution of the few resources devoted to research and innovation.

But the university is not a machine that produces skilled labor. The University is the setting in which the future of a country is outlined. And we are at a turning point in world, and national history: industrialized society, follower of a strong consumerist philosophy, is in crisis, the country is in the midst of a pivotal moment paying dues for what has been one of its biggest karmas of the past half century: armed conflict, also, after 20 years, the Colombian political system, like that of our South American neighbors, seems to be undergoing a great transition. What is the response of the Universities to address these challenges? What type of country will we build for the challenges in Human Rights, Political Participation, Environment, Competitiveness and Culture, for example?

I bring up the last point so I can ask about the ethical, aesthetic, political and humanistic formation of our collegians. The university is called to form well rounded citizens and in its core, ensure openness to diverse speech, to metaphors and political reflections. In the past 20 years, university education systems seem to have fallen into the realm of realist paradigm: individualistic pragmatism and inflexible, lacking social commitment, oblivious to the political concerns, and closed to reading alternative views.

So, if we are to reform the education system to raise our competitiveness and improve income distribution in an environment that shapes humans with faculties of grownup quality as Kant says, not just laborers, the question is how are you going to finance it?

Universal coverage on quality education is not a minor undertaking. In Colombia out of every 100 students who enter college, only 50 graduate. And out of 100 young people that complete high school, only 35 enter college. And let’s not go back any further, because even on the road between high school and elementary school, are just as many broken dreams along the way. In other words, the investment that needs to be made for this purpose is of comparable magnitude to the reform of the social security system or the law of reparation for victims of armed conflict. Because the problems facing higher education do not begin there … but take off in early childhood and pre-school.

It was not for our benefit that the U.S., during the FTA negotiations, put on the table the requirement that the Universities be profit organizations…  our partners point out a huge potential business. Although Colombia did not accept said requirement, the fact that Santos’s government, in the initial proposal, included private investments to fund the future of education, shapes an idea of ​​who have been the instigators of the reform.

Young students: back to reading Keynes, Prebisch, Marx, Ricardo and Friedman so you can participate in the debate.