Race-work, Race-love

Quito, Day 2: Ecuadorian Higher Education Reform and its Discontents

In Uncategorized on June 16, 2013 at 5:40 pm

image copyAs luck would have it, I had a draft written out last night. In my blurry-eyed sleepiness, I must have pressed a button that caused for all my work to disappear.  Hence, the tardiness of this post.

The further removed you are from a memory, the more you forget.  So I will try to write this quickly.

We had four visits during Day 2, at three different institutions.

The first was with Secretaría Nacional de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (SENSCYT), where we met with several people to discuss community colleges in Ecuador and history of the reform.image-2

The conversation began by providing a historical account of the higher education reform policy they are currently working under. Here are some facts: we were told that 30%  of the Ecuadorian population who are between  the ages 18 and 24 are in college and 38% of the Ecuadorian population who are over 18 are enrolled in some form of postsecondary education.

One presenter explained that in 2007 and 2008 there were various meetings to discuss changes in higher education policy that was in practice at that time. According to the constitution then, there existed two main tenets: the first was that everyone deserved a free public higher education.  Unfortunately, public higher education was only practiced in theory; students were charged different types of fees at different institutions, which the government wanted to curtail. Additionally, not all students actually were able to access higher education despite the low costs.  Secondly, the constitution also mandated assessment and evaluation of the higher education system which they were not conducting.

In 2009, reforming higher education in Ecuador was an agenda item for President Correa and his government.  According to our presenters, the reform was guided by the following principles:

1. In order to transform higher education, higher education needed to be recognized as a public good. In doing so, the government was able to gain authority over the higher education system. We were told that this does not mean control, this means “regulation and overseeing” not controlling.

2. Democratization of access. To ensure that everyone had access to public higher education, the government implemented a national exam in 2012, which they believe evaluates aptitude. Troya emphasized that this exam does not discriminate against students who attend poorly resourced high schools. They also found that the exam provides more access to indigenous and Afro Ecuadorian populations. In fact, Troya says that in addition to increasing those populations in higher education, the net enrollment rate of low income Ecuadorians in higher education is now boasts the highest enrollment of low-income people for all of Latin America. She credits these enrollment rates to the national entrance exam to access higher education.

3. Pertinence is another principle guiding this reform. In other words, the university must fulfill national needs and in this era, this means more specifically, the STEM fields.

This is all part of the a project called the “Good living ” – Buen Vivir  project, a plan that the government is currently implementing that specifies higher education must address the needs of Ecuadorian society. Part of these needs include a push for more students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields.

How is this higher education reform currently being implemented?

One way they plan to implement all of this is by providing more scholarships to Ecuadorian students, more than any other government has in Ecuador. Scholarships are for students who earn a certain score on their national exam.  The score and these scholarships are supposed to guarantee a student’s acceptance into some of their top universities, private or public. In an effort to improve universities, the Ecuadorian government has closed down fourteen colleges and universities. We heard on Day 4 how this affected some students and will recount on the next post.

Another way the Ecuadorian government has implemented this new reform is by offering scholarship money for those who want to study abroad. The deal is that students who wish to study outside of the Ecuador must spend double the amount of time in Ecuador (after they graduate) as they spend abroad. They have a scholars network to keep these scholarship students connected to each other and by helping them find jobs after they come back. So far they have a 1000 graduates who have returned to Ecuador.

A third way the government is implementing this reform is by creating community colleges. Currently, the Ecuadorian government is engaged in a 308 million dollar project to build community colleges. These colleges are mainly geared in the STEM fields and are guided by the country’s needs.

Forty institutions will be converted into community colleges by 2016. The goal is to increase the number of community colleges from 12% to 25%. They are hoping to graduate 31, 000 students by 2017. The government wants to build community colleges that are major specific in areas of the country where there are no institutions of higher education. The philosophy for the students in these community colleges is that they will undergo a “dual formation” between an academic instruction and labor orientation.

All the professors, administrators, and students we heard from seem to question the implementation of this new reform.  Much of these plans sound great in theory but I did not hear how these plans are connected to theory, evaluation, or assessment. One example is the creation of major specific community colleges in areas where there is no postsecondary institution.  It is not quite sure how SENESCYT actually know that people living in these areas will actually want to attend these community colleges in their neighborhoods.  We were told that they have to work on changing the mentality and attitudes of the Ecuadorian people in order for these reforms to work but it is not certain how they plan to do this.  We were also told that if someone who wants to study a specific major not found at their local community colleges, they have to travel to one that does.  And to me, this defeats the purpose of the community college. Additionally, the reform states that all professors must hold PhDs in order to teach. In a country that only has 250 PhD holders, this seems like it will be an enormous feat to beat if they hope to build all these extra community colleges.

It is interesting to see how the government seems to be pushing very hard for vocational training while the professors we spoke with are not content with the brain drain, the lack of liberal arts training, and the lack of knowledge being produced and exported from Ecuador. The government seems to be working on these issues as well and I would have liked to have heard more about this. Also left unclear to me was how this reform will be studied or assessed.  I am not sure how they plan to gather professors, administrators, and students’ perceptions of these reforms.

Day two consisted of more meetings with administrators from an American high school in Quito and a visit with student affairs professionals in la Universidad de las Americas (the only one in Quito higher education and maybe even the country).  We also met with one of the only disabled professors in Quito higher education.  This professor helped transform the Universidad de las Americas by making the campus friendlier for physically disabled people by creating ramps and elevators for those individuals who are in wheel chairs.

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Day three and four were filled with narratives from Ecuadorian people who were or continue to be college students here. These were powerful stories filled with struggle for the desire to continue higher education given many structural and political roadblocks that were created by the government. I will write about that for my next piece.

In all, there seems to be a disconnect between the government and the higher education community.  Each group (professors, students, administrators)  has their own set of problems with the government’s higher education reform.  Indeed, it doesn’t seem that complete governmental authority over higher education is working; we are in the midst of watching change occur and no one knows yet how this will affect Ecuador’s most valuable treasure: its people.

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