As education reform is put on the back burner, the core problems affecting Colombia’s system of higher education continue to fester as public universities continue to expand and budgets fail to keep up.
Universities have significantly increased their intake of students, but the Colombian government has been unwilling or unable to provide the financial resources and the faculty to deal with this expansion, according to University of Antioquia philosophy professor Francisco Cortes.
Currently the director of his university’s Institute of Philosophy, Cortes has just published a book on the university as an institution entitled The Social Path of Reason: Essays on the university.
“The regional and central governments want the public universities to host increasingly more students but haven’t increased the number of professors. The budget has increased, but very little. This is the root of the problems that the universities have,” Cortes told Colombia Reports.
It is a problem that everyone seems to recognize, but there is currently no consensus on how to manage it.
Over the last three years, President Juan Manuel Santos’ efforts to reform the country’s higher education system have faced severe backlash from students and faculty alike.
Given the other problems the Colombian government has confronted – strikes from farmers, miners and transport workers, peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, and many more – it has decided to instead maintain the status quo.
“It has been a difficult period for the government, especially the last two years. The government knows it is a sensitive topic, so what they have decided is to do nothing and let it continue,” Cortes said.
Professor Cortes used his own institution – the University of Antioquia – as an example to demonstrate problems that are experienced nationally in Colombia’s public universities.
“In 1996, the University of Antioquia had about 1,400 full-time professors. At this time, there were 16,000 students. This year, we have 1,580 full-time professors and 36,000 students – which is to say, more than double the students,” Cortes said.
In less than 20 years, the university’s student population more than doubled while its full-time faculty grew by a little more than 10%. Cortes says this has happened around the country.
Meanwhile, Cortes said, “the universities have had to develop its competencies in research, production of new knowledge, publications of articles and books. To do this, they have had to establish a mechanism for professors to dedicate more time for research.”
Enter: adjunct professors.
As full-time professors are pushed toward research, their normal course load of three or four classes is reduced to one or two. To fill this gap, universities have increasingly utilized what in the United States are called “adjunct” professors, or lecturers who are under contract and paid per course taught.
Unlike full-time professors, they have no research obligations and have no formal ties to the university other than for the temporary period stipulated in their contracts.
“A good percentage of the students – a majority – are being taught by these contracted professors. They are not tied to the university, they have very poor contracts, earn much less money. They are in a much worse situation than us [full-time faculty],” Cortes said.
Despite the use of these adjunct professors, and the fact that only 56% of the university’s budget is publicly funded, the University of Antioquia’s finances are still strained. According to Cortes, the university has a budget deficit of approximately $18 million.
Nationally, the budget deficit of public universities is more than $6 billion.
Reforming higher education has centered around legislation passed in Colombia back in 1992 known as “Law 30” which established the framework for Colombia’s current higher education system. It is a law everyone agrees is outdated and does not respond to the current needs of universities.
As Cortes says, “it is the law we all want to change but have not been able to.”
In 2011, the Santos administration proposed to reform Law 30, but faced strong push-back from those it would affect.
Students and other critics characterized the reform as having elements of privatization, including financing universities through private capital and turning them into for-profit institutions.
Cortes was a strong opponent of the reform. He argued back in 2011 that converting universities into for-profit institutions would be a “denaturalization” of the public university. Quoting a Mexican university rector, he said this would turn education into “mere commercial transactions.”
After weeks of national student strikes which sometimes turned violent, the government was eventually forced to throw the bill out.
In August of this year, Santos tried to take a smaller step by creating what was known as “Agreement 2034.” It was not a proposed law, but, as Cortes says, simply a list of “ideas and projections over the university should be, the changes that need to be made.”
Students again reacted negatively toward the agreement. Colombia Reports interviewed a representative of the main student union (MANE) last month when the group was planning national protests. They failed to build the momentum of the 2011 strikes.
“The first motivation for the march is to stop the application of Agreement 2034 which is the public policy that the government launched to reform higher education,” the spokesperson told Colombia Reports.
The two other demands sought a solution to the budget deficit and increased autonomy and democracy in public universities.
Students also say the proposed number of government-provided scholarships offered by the Santos administration is insufficient.
According to Colombian newspaper El Espectador, the rector of the State University System says Santos had promised 600,000 scholarships to students with few financial resources during his reelection campaign. In his inaugural speech, it dropped to 400,000. It has now dropped to just 10,000.
What can be done?
Cortes argues that their needs to be increased democratic representation from the university sector to discuss viable reforms with the government. Law 30, the legislation everyone hopes to reform, established the mechanisms of democratic representation in the university system.
“The fundamental problem is that these mechanisms are not regulated and the representation does not function. There is no relationship, accountability, or transparency between the groups [faculty, students, etc.] and their representatives,” Cortes said.
Perhaps the key issue these groups and the government must address is the lack of financial resources allocated to universities.
“They have not increased the university budgets like they should have. The state has not wanted – or been able – to increase the budget. Many blame the situation we are in, that we are in a war,” Cortes said.
While being fundamentally against university privatization, Cortes thinks that, realistically, given the current challenges, public universities have to begin cooperating with private companies.
“I believe the public universities have to accept that it is necessary to have a relationship with private companies. It is necessary for the development of scientific research, for example,” Cortes said.
The professor argues that “through this relationship that they can find the researchers and business people who can asses what needs to be investigated to generate relevant knowledge for the country.”
“This could lead to privatization. But not necessarily,” he claimed. It would depend on how it is done, he said.
“Of course, the ideal is that the university be completely financed by public funds,” Cortes said. “One of the characteristics of the public university is that it is financed by the state in its totality.”
Could the Colombian state do that?
“The state says it cannot.”
It says it cannot – but can it?
“I don’t know.”
Santos has urged Colombians to support the peace process with the FARC as a way to move the budget away from military to social spending, including education.
It is unlikely, however, that Colombian university students will stay off the streets while waiting for a final peace deal to be signed. As the education crisis continues to grow, more protests and strikes are inevitable until a real solution is proposed.
- Interview with Franciso Cortes
- Interview with MANE spokesperson
- Críticas a las 10 mil becas de Santos (El Espectador)