Saturday, March 26, 2011

Changes and Challenges for the Public Universities

A casket in the National University's student-named
'Lenin Plaza,' warning about the U's supposed fate.
The Colombian government has proposed fundamental reforms for the country's public universities. Government officials say it's crucial to bring more financing and expand access to the universities, but some students and officials fear that the changes will lead to privatization of the public university system. 

The proposed reforms include quality control systems, cuts in drop-out rates, the acceptance of private financing and the creation of for-profit public schools.

All of that sounds great. But in Colombia the public universities have a special status as bastions of leftist politics and protests again the establishment, ranging from university reforms like these to the existence of capitalism and the state itself. (Take a look at the graffiti on the National University campus in Bogotá, and you'll see for yourself.) Still, the public universities provide good educations.

A new Ché Guevara mural in La Nacho. 
More concretely, the public universities are heavily subsidized for low-income students, providing many Colombians of modest means with their only opportunity for higher education. For students from the poorest families, a university education can cost as little as $50 or $100 per semester, compared to the several thousand dollars which a private education at a high-status private university can cost. However, there aren't enough places for the all of those who want to study. And university officials complain that they've expanded enrollment and services greatly over the last decade, but haven't received budget increases to match.

Government officials also believe that universities play an important role in occupying young people who might otherwise join one of the illegal guerrilla or paramilitary organizations. (Of course, a look at the pro-guerrilla graffiti in the National University in Bogotá suggests that higher education can convert some students into guerrillas.)

In the United States, where many public universities accept money for research projects, sports financing and other purposes, the policy has been controversial. Private universities can influence the type of research that is done, and whether or not the results are published.

Privatize this! A communal meal being prepared in La Nacho's Ché Plaza. 
See also: Students march against Ley 30.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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