Estudia y DESOBDC: the Higher Education Debate in Colombia

McLoughlin - Colombia - Graffiti

“Study and Disobey,” graffiti from the Plaza de Bolivar

I wasn’t in Bogotá for last year’s spate of student strikes and protests, nor have I seen its student movement in action. Its wake, however, is everywhere.

The graffiti doesn’t last long in the ritzier areas of the city. It’s wiped off advertisements rather quickly; the pretty woman declaring her desire to “estudiar” from the wall of the bus stop by my hostel was, by morning, yearning once more for the “solidez” of the cell phone network Claro. It lasts longer on university walls, but the artistic vandalism is at its most rambunctious and its most visceral in the Centro, where colonial architecture becomes a platform for modern conflicts and paintball protests have turned government buildings into Jackson Pollock paintings.

Sometimes it’s hard to discern who’s responsible for what when conducting graffiti archaeology; Bogotá is a city with protests in its mortars and a lot to be discontent about. The messages that can be traced with certainty to the student movement refer primarily to “la Ley 30,” a 1992 law governing Colombian higher education that was the subject of a proposed reform last year.

The provisions of this reform that brought Colombian students to the streets included the creation of “for profit” universities and an increase in “student credits” administered under the auspices of the student loan institute ICETEX. These provisions, according to activists, favored private universities to the detriment of public education while the reform itself did little for the roughly 3.6 million qualified Colombians who cannot afford higher education.

For a bit of context: tuition for public universities in Colombia can be over 1,000 USD per semester; the minimum wage in Colombia is 328 USD per month; the average salary is 692 USD per month; and informal workers for whom those two numbers mean absolutely nothing make up around 51 percent of the workforce in urban areas. Scholarships, loans, and financial aid exist, but can result in crippling debt – in the past, interest rates on private loans have reached over 17 percent.

The student protests caused President Santos to withdraw the reform and to open up a dialogue with students, professors, and other major players in the tertiary education system. Student groups have elected leaders to participate in talks with the government over how precisely to reform the education system. This is quite similar to 1999, when exactly the same thing was proposed. The “working tables” resulted in an increase in student credits based on academic performance, with a special focus on lower-income students.

Similar to the strikes and protests that have paralyzed Chile, ignited Québec, and not really happened in the U.S., Colombian students are addressing a question about the fundamental nature of higher education: Is it a right to be ensured by the government, or a commodity to be funded privately? The latter point of view has alleged common sense on its side. Higher education is expensive and lowering or eliminating tuition and other fees might have a deleterious effect on the quality of education.

The counter-argument has some less-common sense on its side. Colombian economist Darwin Marcelo demonstrated that, at least in Bogotá, concentrations of individuals with higher education were associated with higher incomes and quality of life. His study indicated that the benefits accrued from increased education were actually more significant for the society than for the individual. In response to the funding argument, Colombian activists point to their government’s military spending, which greatly eclipses the money allotted for higher education.

That fundamental question about the nature of higher education introduces dozens of new questions, whose answers are too cumbersome for pithy street art or political platitudes. These questions are universal, but have unique caveats in the Colombian context:

How do you make higher education accessible in one of the most unequal countries in the world?

What role should universities play in educating citizens of a country wracked by decades of ideological violence, institutionalized corruption, and foreign interference?

“Educarme para ser la mano de obra barata del país? PUES NO.”*

Some answers are easier than others.

*”Educate myself to be this country’s cheap labor source? Well, no.” From  the wall of the Universidad Pedagogica Nacional.

Posted by Kevin McLoughlin, MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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