EL SALVADOR: Admissions broaden for poorer students

New students at El Salvador's only public university walked into classes this year with the lowest entrance examination scores in 10 years. A report released by the University of El Salvador says the average test score was 3.65 in 2011, a 27% drop from the benchmark in 2001. The decrease has nothing to do with a smaller applicant pool but rather a bigger one, with the number of applications growing by more than 1,000 since last year.

Oscar Carlos Picardo, a higher education analyst and a former advisor to the education ministry, said the university system has buckled under pressure to make public education accessible to all:

"We have a system of education that has in recent years opted for coverage over quality," he said. "The result has been over-enrolled classrooms, less funding for research and a type of learning for the student body that doesn't go much below the surface. Students know the material but they don't understand it and neither can they apply what they've learned."

In an interview with the popular online newspaper El Faro, Academic Vice-Rector Miguel Ángel Pérez admitted to a decline in admission standards: "We work, in a large part, with people of limited resources that have come up through the public education system and they see this university as the only opportunity to pursue higher education."

Marvin Guillén, President of the International Federation of Medical Students' Associations, said the problem was not so much in the lowering of admissions standards but in the lack of preparation. Guillén said neither families nor primary and secondary institutions were doing an adequate job in getting students to the level they should be when they graduated from high school.

"The quality of life for the average Salvadoran family is one in which the primary interest is in the attainment of economic resources to sustain the family, which means most students start working at a young age," he said. Unfortunately, this results in youth spending less time in the classroom."

The fact more students had chosen to make education a priority and were subsequently pursing higher education should be celebrated and encouraged, even if it meant reduced admission standards, Guillén said.

"We should create policies that favour educational opportunities for all Salvadorans, but at the same time guarantee that we meet the labour market's demand of having integrally trained professionals. We should not restrict education to the brilliant but know how to make brilliant students."

Many of his classmates have staged demonstrations, demanding access to higher education for all, even those who were not successful in the admissions exam. They argue that few alternatives exist for those who do not succeed in the exam because private education can cost up to 400% more than the public university.

In early March, a handful of students closed the university down, demanding that 243 more places be opened to prospective students. The university agreed recently to create 200 more seats.

Picardo, who recently authored a book on the challenges facing El Salvador's universities, said students had become victims of their own protests. Classroom sizes had swollen, research opportunities had shrunk and open admission was having a notable impact on quality.

"To be a public university should not be synonymous with being a higher education space for poor people, although the system in the country - both its 38 private universities and one public - certainly makes it out as such."