Colombia is experimenting with more public-private partnerships in higher education in an effort to increase student enrolments through private sector expansion. But allowing for-profit universities is still highly controversial and opposed by students and university rectors alike, according to the country’s former education minister Cecilia María Vélez.
“In Colombia, there is an ideological division against the delivery of private education,” Vélez told a conference on private education organised by the International Finance Corporation, IFC, in Dubai from 6-8 March.
The Colombian government was forced in November to retract a new higher education reform bill that, among other things, proposed allowing for-profit institutions to set up and private companies to finance public universities, after tens of thousands of students protested against it.
The protests in a large number of cities between April and November 2011 against the privatisation of higher education led to the temporary closure of more than 30 universities.
However, Vélez pointed out that non-profit private autonomous institutions are better able to reach poorer and marginalised sectors of the population and are often more flexible than public institutions.
“That was why we looked at more private ones. We put them in places where we did not have enough public [higher education] supply,” she said, speaking of her time as Colombia’s long-serving education minister from 2002 until 2010.
Vélez, who is about to take up the position as head of a private university – Jorge Taeo Lozano University in Bogotá – told University World News that while she was in government “we were cautious because higher education is a competence of the public sector but [private provision] was in addition to public – they could not choose the students, and that was important for equity of access".
Public-private education, often where the state funds or partially funds private non-profit institutions, or provides state-backed loans or grants for students to attend them, is often a better solution in difficult areas in developing countries that have limited budgets for higher education expansion, she suggested.
It also helps reduce the risks to private providers that would otherwise stay in the more profitable cities and richer areas.
Leonidas López Herrán, rector of the private non-profit university UNIMINUTO – Corporación Universitaria Minuto de Dios – which has received some funding support from the IFC, said such funding “allows us to go to the poorest. We may not have other funding opportunities for this.”
UNIMINUTO, which is reaching some 67,000 students in 40 locations in Colombia, operates independently in some regions but also through formal collaborations with other universities or government entities, including sharing premises with some publicly funded institutions in isolated areas.
“Previously public universities did not have the capacity to take all the students who wanted higher education, so it was possible to create hybrid institutions,” López told University World News.
UNIMINUTO has to seek approval from the authorities on levels of tuition fees. Some students are eligible for government-backed student loans, but UNIMINUTO can also raise funds for loans from other sources.
“Our model, as a private university, is based on social responsibility,” he said.
Growth in private provision slowing
Private non-profits, many of them church foundations, have operated for a long time in Colombia. However, opening up the higher education market completely to all-comers would not be appropriate, Vélez believes, with reference to the aborted higher education bill.
“Poor people are often not well-informed, they cannot make a good choice. So in these cases competition [from the private sector] is not enough to improve higher education,” Vélez said. “The government has to put in the rules and represent those who cannot choose.”
Colombia is unusual in that growth in public higher education enrolments is now outpacing private higher education enrolments.
“With the demand in the 1990s the private universities grew a lot. But the bad universities grew more – the ones that did not give a lot of added value, because they were very cheap,” explained Vélez.
“We began to demand more things from those universities. They couldn’t open enrolments for some programmes that did not reach the standards. And then they stopped their exponential growth.”
At the same time the public sector began to grow swiftly because of an increase in high-school graduates in the regions. “In the big cities almost all went to high school but demand has increased in the regions,” Vélez said.
After the government provided maintenance loans to the poorest “there was a boom, especially of public regional universities".
She believes that private higher education operations can function within strict rules but understands that with tension still simmering over the government’s aborted university reform bill, it is unlikely that for-profits will be included in any new reforms.
In February Colombian university leaders and students were invited by the government to help draft a new higher education reform bill intended to improve the quality of private institutions and the funding of public ones.
“I think the national dialogue launched by the government is a good way of reducing the protests, because if the government can explain [what it is doing] and get allies, they can manage the protest movement,” Vélez said.
However, she doubts that a reform bill will go through parliament this year. “The protest movement is still very strong. I think politically it’s not going to go through. Even some private universities are against it, so it will be very difficult for the government to pass the reform.
UNIMINUTO’s López said his institution agreed that it was necessary to have reform. Uniminuto needs to find diverse sources of funding.
“I am very optimistic about what is happening,” he said, referring to the dialogue with government on a new bill. “With reform maybe we will have more opportunity as a private university and maybe we will have more resources for faculty development and research,” he added, referring to more hybrid forms of funding under a new bill.
But he agreed that the idea of allowing for-profit private universities was no longer likely.
Vélez pointed out that many private university rectors in the non-profit sector oppose for-profit universities because they fear competition from big corporations with deep pockets. Others said the non-profit sector feared being bought out by or amalgamated with for-profit institutions, losing their unique ethos.
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