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What to Do with Colombia’s Colleges? Let Students Decide

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Feb 23, 2015, 10:06 am

EspañolLast week, one of Colombia’s most prestigious universities published a declaration that peddled the ignorant view that homosexuals suffer from some kind of “illness.”

The study, submitted to the Constitutional Court as it considered legalizing adoption for same-sex couples, was met with immediate condemnation. Colombians may not defend individual freedom en masse, but they are quick to crack down on politically incorrect thinking.

El debate sobre la educación en Colombia se centra en la cantidad, no en la calidad (Flickr)
The debate around higher education in Colombia has ignored the bottom-up solution of heightened competitive forces. (Flickr)

I won’t concern myself here with the idiocies put forward by this study, but it does highlight another issue in need of attention: the quality of higher education in Colombia.

It was another reminder that standards are not being met under the current system, and that increased competition — and a greater role for the private sector — could play a key role in improving quality across the board.

Everyone agrees: education is a tool for development, the creation of better citizens, and greater societal harmony. The question, however, is how best to secure the benefits.

The majority of societies around the world have adopted the easy road: higher education provided by the state. The rough argument is that there ought to be equality of access to this service. As a result, the state should guarantee its financing.

What is less understandable is why the those in authority automatically believe that financing it though government loans will lead to greater quality, something which Milton Friedman, among others, has disputed.

Instead, disinterest from political elites, the lack of resources, and corruption have all served to limit the availability of state-funded higher education.

The private sector is already stepping in to fill the gap. The majority of student loans are offered by private companies, and students are flocking to study at for-profit institutions. Consider that 85 percent of recipients opted for private universities during the latest loan program provided by the government.

Yet people still refuse to recognize the success of private provision, and even blame poor education standards on private universities simply because of their visibility.  But the same low standards can also be found in public entities. In fact, not a single Colombian university ranks among the 100, 200, or 500 best higher-education institutions in the world. Why is this the case?

Two factors are key. One is the lack of competence in the academic system: of serious, rigorous debates that allow for dissent and unorthodox opinions to emerge. This is related to the second problem: the very concept of education as a public right, but never as a private service.

Many people speak of the problems besetting the education sector as if only the state can solve them. They refuse to consider the real route to driving up standards: allowing private universities to innovate and compete among themselves, giving students greater freedom of choice in the process.

The outdated theories passed off last week under the name of “research” show that half-hearted commitment to private provision doesn’t work either. Mediocrity will seep into both private and public institutions without genuine competition and freedom of choice.

Yet the Colombian government’s answer is to provide still more government. In 2014, the authorities rolled out a new series of measurements for inspectors, which constitute nothing more than a system of ticks and crosses implemented by bureaucrats who have no idea what real research is.

These new metrics themselves could be debunked through exposure to academic debate and opposing ideas. But that is unlikely if the prevailing, harmful vision of education in Colombia continues.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.