PERU-BOLIVIA: Indigenous universities gain foothold

The first higher education institution for Peru's indigenous population, the Aymara, will soon become a reality. In May the Peruvian national congress' Education Commission approved a proposal to create a national Aymara university and in a vote to take place this month the country's ruling congress is expected to follow suit. In neighbouring Bolivia, President Evo Morales said this month that he intended to expand higher education for indigenous people.

The goal for the university's proponents is to improve access to and the quality of education for indigenous people and train them as professionals who will then be better able to improve the socio-economic situations of their communities. There are more than two million Aymara located in the Andean regions of Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile.

"Historically, indigenous languages and other native forms of knowledge have been marginalised and stigmatised in Latin America," said Maria Elena García, a professor at the University of Washington, whose research focuses on the Andean region and who sees the new university as part of a larger 'decolonising' movement across the Americas.

García said the situation may prove more challenging than in other Latin American countries that have been building up their indigenous higher education systems. "Generally speaking, Peruvian society is more hostile to indigenous issues than Ecuador so the creation of an indigenous university there will not be without its challenges."

While many proponents feel that the university will help greater society learn more about their indigenous population, others, such as Lucio Ávila Rojas, Rector of Peru's National University of the High Plains (Universidad Nacional del Altiplano), are more circumspect: "It's a good idea; hopefully it won't just be an illusion."

David Post, professor of education policy and editor of the Comparative Education Review at Pennsylvania State University in the US, explained that there were historical reasons for cynicism.

"Peru began to teach using [the indigenous language] Quechua during the 1970s, after it was declared a second official language. These attempts failed because parents saw - correctly - that instruction in Quechua during primary school didn't lead anywhere, as there were no universities teaching in this subject. The question now is whether the public will embrace indigenous language universities without parallel changes in places of employment."

The university will be located in Puno province, close to the border of Bolivia. There is talk of possibly making the university bi-national through an accord with the Bolivian government, to better benefit more indigenous Aymara who inhabit both sides of the border of this Andean region.

Bolivia is in its own process of experimenting with indigenous higher education.

Two years ago its government approved the creation of three indigenous universities: an Aymara university, Tupac Katari University in the town of Warisata near La Paz; a Quechua university, Casimiro Huanca University, in the central province of Cochabamba; and a Guarani university, Apiaguaiki Tupa University, in the southern province of Chuquisaca.

At the Aymara university career tracks include high plains agronomy, food and textile industry studies, veterinary medicine and animal husbandry. The Quechua university concentrates on the food industry, forestry and fishery cultivation. The Guarani institution focuses on hydrocarbons, fishery cultivation, veterinary medicine and animal husbandry.

Students are expected to return to their communities once their studies have been completed, and apply their new knowledge towards the improvement of their region.

On 2 August Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that he intended to expand higher education to other regions of the country in order to fight against the exodus of young people from the countryside to cities. Morales said that nowadays getting a bachelors degree should not be a luxury and that it was necessary for all young Bolivians to have access to higher education.

However creating a practical and efficacious indigenous education system is not going to be easy in either Bolivia or Peru, says Post. "The examples of Paraguay and Malaysia show it can be done; many other examples in the Americas and elsewhere show it is going to be a very long challenge, with no guarantee of success."