Wednesday I rode into the university a little later than usual because I had to print out my homework, and so I was excepting people to already be in class. Instead, as I was riding in I saw a large group of people waving big sheets of poster paper like they have in rallies, parades, or in this case protests. Protest marches and activities have been going on since the beginning of the semester: the nursing department has been going on strike and asking for a hospital that was taken away from them a few years back, mamertos marching around in name of education, and encapuchados throwing “potato bombs” at plaza Ché. Let me elucidate. “Mamertos” is a derogatory term for activists (usually students) who still think that communism is viable option for Colombia. “Encapuchados” (hooded ones) are also activists and take part in more aggressive activities while trying to remain anonymous—for safety reasons–by wearing all black, including black hoods. “Potato bombs” are home-made bombs with bricks; they are like big poppers and are not really meant to harm anyone, just make a lot of noise, which they do. I usually hear them on Fridays when I’m in the library.
The thing about the public university is that not everyone pays the same tuition. You pay depending on your socioeconomic status, e.g., your formal strata position, if you went to a public or private high school, how much your parents earn, ect. Also, a lot of funding comes from the state so no matter what won’t pay as much as other universities. Given that, sometimes the facilities aren’t all fancy schmanzy and there is a lot of lack. The basic situation is that pretty much since the university was founded about 150 years ago they have been trying to close it, while students and others interested in keeping it alive have been trying to prevent that. Back in the 80s things got so bad that the strikes lasted 2 years. Imagine that, 2 years without having classes. That used to be the stereotype of the nacho student; finishing an undergrad degree could take anywhere from 7 to 10 years, and that’s if you passed your classes. Those were bad times, times of reforms and chaos and more reforms. A few years ago (2005, 2007, and 2008) these times of reforms and chaos came back and there were a lot of protests and “paros” (stops) where classes stopped for a while. Resources like hospitals were lost, there was stone-throwing, tear gas…you know, normal student things.
Now there is a huge reform to the 1992 Law 30. It is a general reform on higher education. Although there is a need to reform this law, the reform is so terrible that even the Dean, a political rightist, has expressed concerns about it. There are tons of articles, about 146 of them, mostly on the objectives of a higher education institution and its requirements, but the important part is a couple of key changes: coverage, autonomy, private funding, and quality.
Some statistics on coverage are helpful here. As of 2009 there were almost 2 million students in universities all over Colombia, but also twice as many that couldn’t study for lack of resources. The government suggested fixing this with for-profit universities and corporate funding. The “for-profit university” is obviously controversial and the president has decided to drop it since the reform was put forth in March. Moreover, the government was still supposed to increase funding for the public universities since 1992, and in 2009 gave an additional 70.000 pesos (35,000 dollars) to be used between 32 public universities. Simple math tells us that comes out to 2.200 pesos (1,200 dollars) per university. I’m not sure how much you can do with that, and in any case they haven’t even finish paying it. The government tried to pacify the universities’ financial concerns by promising them 1% increase in CPI in 2012, 2% in 2013, and 3% between 2014 and 2019. If you know anything about inflation you know this is ridiculous and will never cover the expenses—it’s the equivalent of giving a penny for every dollar increase. Because of this the universities will have to increase their tuitions and this will also obviously affect professors’ salaries and the quality of education.
Concerns over autonomy are understandable, the university doesn’t want to be told how to teach its students. The reform wants to do just that by placing universities under judicial oversight and making them enter the market. This kind of reform makes them no different from private institutions, subject to the follies of the market or state officials that know nothing about education. Entering the market is unnecessary since corporate funding is not novel for universities. In fact universities often have to seek corporate funding for research, which includes theses. There’s many more bad ideas in store as well; from shortening of academic semesters and even whole career time to how many times you can withdraw from or fail a class. It’s really no wonder there has been such an outcry. (Chile, too, has been having protests over similar things. If you’re interested read: this, this, watch this, especially watch this, and also this.)
What happens now? Well, we don’t know really. All we know is that during the time the reform is being discussed there will be protests and paros and who knows if we’ll get to finish the semester on time. But let’s not be pessimists here. The big protest is going down October 12 and worst case scenario we lose a month or so of classes which will have to be made up for during December. In the best case we’ll lose about a week.
This has been a long post. Hopefully it makes up for missing Fruit Friday. If you want to know more, it’s all over the news. Just google “educational reform Colombia”.