What Colombia Gets Right — and Doesn’t

Colombia has been on the path toward developing a sophisticated, diversified and equitable system of higher education for many years. This is promising but there are many shortcomings in policy and practice.

August 29, 2016

With little international recognition, Colombia has been more engaged with international trends in higher education than just about any other country in Latin America.  In fact, I would go further and say that Colombia seems to be the only country in Latin America that has developed and sustained a coherent national policy for the development of higher education for several decades, taking into consideration the major issues confronting all countries today including quality, access, funding, performance measures, internationalization, etc.  Of course the rest of the region is grappling with these issues as well, but national policy elsewhere is too often bogged down by competing political agendas that lead to dramatic policy shifts and fluctuating political priorities. No other country in the region seems to be integrating so many initiatives into a national vision for higher education. While Colombia’s many initiatives are far from perfect, they continue to evolve.

Quality: Colombia was one of the first countries in Latin America to develop a national system to evaluate the quality of higher education and to require tertiary institutions to develop mechanisms for self-monitoring, be more transparent, and more accountable.  Since the early 1990s, the national system for quality assurance has evolved, as it should, based on lessons learned from experience.  As elsewhere, Colombia has had to wrestle with whether to set minimum standards or establish levels of excellence.  The government decided to do both and developed a dual-level quality assurance scheme—establishing minimum standards through the “Registro Calificado” (required) and encouraging a higher level of quality through accreditation (optional).   Although accreditation is optional, as in the US, the Colombian government makes access to some funding and national programs contingent on accreditation. 

Private-Public Parity: In most of Latin America, research, international collaboration, and publications in English are more typically the output of large, government-subsidized public universities.  There are certainly exceptions throughout the region but very few privates typically dedicate adequate resources for these activities.  Colombia’s top private universities are as likely to engage in research and international collaboration as its top publics.  As a result, top scholars are less likely to be clustered in a few elite public universities.  Last year, Scimago’s ranking of the top 10 universities in Colombia listed 5 public and 5 private institutions.  More interesting still is that these ranked universities were distributed among 6 different “departments” (states) and not clustered in the capital city as is often the case in this region.

The private-public parity is also evident in the activity of two institutions funding graduate study abroad—COLCIENCIAS with public support and COLFUTURO with private support. Yet it must be noted that the number of scholarships awarded by both sectors is inadequate to the need.

Assessment: Colombia has managed a national testing program for decades.  Initially a secondary leaving exam was the primary criteria for admission to postsecondary education and contributed to a national database; the program and test have evolved to provide data for greater purposes.  The testing program now includes a secondary school leaving exam, Saber, and a university leaving exam, Saber Pro.   Data from these two exams lay baselines to evaluate the impact of university education.  In a region where reliable data are scarce, Colombia has a lot of it.

Access: Data from the OECD and World Bank indicate that approximately 51% of the age cohort is enrolled in higher education, representing a steady increase over successive years.  An impressive 20% of adults hold a tertiary qualification, putting it ahead of other countries in the region for adult education attainment. Still, most Colombian universities charge fees and this presents a barrier to access for individuals from the bottom socio-economic strata.  In 2014 the government launched the program “Ser Pilo Paga” (SPP), a scholarship program that facilitates the enrollment of students with limited economic means and top test results to enroll at an accredited university.  The program provides a loan to cover tuition (loan can be “forgiven” upon graduation), additional funds for living expenses and commuting, along with financial rewards for completing each semester and a high grade point average. Many private institutions fund their own complementary scholarship programs to extend economic diversity further within the institution.

Internationalization: Internationalization was added to criteria for accreditation for institutional accreditation in Colombia in 2015.  According to the OECD. 2% of tertiary level students are enrolled abroad with the largest percentage enrolled in Spain, not surprising but not encouraging for developing multilingualism among university graduates. The Ministry of Education has added “internationalization” as one of the criteria to be considered for accreditation, creating an incentive for institutions to develop international strategies.

Colombia has been on the path towards developing a sophisticated, internationalized, diversified and equitable system of higher education for many years.  The country has national policies and programs to assure minimum standards of quality and encourage excellence; to measure learning outcomes, to facilitate tertiary enrollment for students with limited financial resources; and to promote internationalization.  This is all promising but there are many shortcomings in both policy and practice. 

Quality assurance in Colombia, much as elsewhere in the region, tends toward making incremental improvements to the existing model of higher education.  Rigid, professional models of education in both the university and post-secondary vocational institutions tend to fill degree programs with excessive content with little attention to the skills the labor market clamors for—creativity, critical thinking, the capacity to resolve complex problems, written and oral communication, ability to work in teams, etc.  The current system of licensing and accreditation does little to encourage innovation. Furthermore, although there are quite a few excellent universities there are also some very poor ones; accreditation has been awarded to a relatively small percentage of Colombia’s universities.

Testing tends to become an end it itself.  While standard, national tests provide valuable data, these examinations often hold too much influence over curriculum and results can be used towards political ends.  Furthermore, standardized tests have been shown to discriminate against some backgrounds and cultures. Making eligibility for the Ser Pilo Paga scholarship dependent on test results the program provides opportunities for some, but it leaves out others who may be equally talented, equally in need of financial support, but less successful on standardized tests.  And finally, SPP has only made a small dent in the challenge of increasing access as the program reaches fewer the 2% of the age cohort in the target population.  

The addition of “internationalization” as an objective for excellence has tended towards traditional notions of this dimension of higher education, emphasizing student and faculty mobility, international research and publication in international journals.  There is an urgent need to provide support to help all institutions develop international strategies more relevant to their mission and the populations they serve but there is precious little information circulating about how that might be done.

Yet, improving higher education has been a constant and evolving strategy in Colombia, regardless of government or ideology in power.  There is much to do, but much being done.  Suffice it to say that this is a country for scholars and practitioners in higher education to watch.


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