Demand from industry leads to big S&T investment and scholarships

Responding to increasing demand from industry and perpetually low rankings among Latin American countries, Peru is investing more than US$136 million in science and technology (S&T).

Prime Minister Oscar Valdéz also recently announced that 1,000 new S&T postgraduate fellowships would be made available by 2016, as well as 1,500 scholarships for Peruvian students at foreign universities.

In January the Ministry of Economy and Finance launched an Innovation for Competitiveness programme designed to boost S&T links between universities, the private sector, and public and private research centres.

The project, with US$100 million of state funding and a further US$36 million from the Inter-American Development Bank will run for seven years.

Dr Salomón Soldevilla Canales, who heads the regular projects unit at the government agency running the programme FINCyT – Funding for Innovation, Science and Technology – said that 41 new projects had already been initiated.

“We are anticipating further funding from the Peruvian government and the Inter-American Development Bank to launch more projects,” he said.

Manuel Trigoso Barentzen, who is responsible for evaluation and selection of the projects, said they include purchasing new equipment, laboratories and electronic libraries. “Through this programme, we are aiming to create a greater culture of science and technology in Peru's universities,” he said.

Peru's higher education sector, which comprises more than 90 universities, of which around 60 are private, has a poor reputation.

There are currently no Peruvian universities in the top 500 of the QS World University Rankings, and just six in the top 200 universities in the QS University Rankings: Latin America.

However, with Peru's economy growing strongly – gross domestic product increased 6.9% in 2011, and is forecast to be up by 5.5% in 2012 – the government is increasingly keen to improve the quality of the country's universities to sustain this economic growth.

It wants more graduates in science, technology and engineering to help develop key industries such as mining and agriculture.

Prime Minister Oscar Valdéz, who unveiled the project, also announced in January that 1,000 new S&T postgraduate fellowships would be made available in the four years to 2016, as well as a further 1,500 for Peruvian students at foreign universities.

In addition, the government is examining a recent paper published by the Group for the Analysis of Development (Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo – GRADE), a Peruvian organisation that specialises in public policy research and has recommended a range of new policies focused on science, technology and innovation.

Juana Kuramoto, associate researcher at GRADE, said that in Peru there is a significant shortage of engineering graduates in several industry sectors. “You can see this very clearly in the mining industry,” she said. Mining contributes 60% of Peru's GDP.

She added: “There is a big bias in Peruvian universities at the moment towards administrative sciences and social sciences. A new policy is needed to boost science and technology, as these courses are expensive to set up due to the laboratories and equipment needed.”

The demand for S&T courses has grown.

The Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, one of Peru's leading universities, has around 4,000 science and engineering students.

Gustavo Kato, executive director of the mechatronics engineering department, said that this figure is expected to grow. The number of students in mechatronics engineering alone, a hybrid of several engineering disciplines, is projected to increase from 700 to 1,600 over the next two years. He added that mining engineering is also increasingly popular.

“Lots of Peruvian science and engineering students were going abroad but now more are studying in Peru due to the growing opportunities here,” said Kato.

More new science and technology universities are also expected to open following the success of the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, or UTEC. The Lima-based not-for-profit institution opened in 2010 and offers a range of engineering courses.

Funded by five Peruvian companies, with the majority of the investment coming from Hochschild Mining, a leading Peru-focused (but UK headquartered) silver and gold producer, UTEC currently has 200 students. According to Mario Rivera Orams, a member of the UTEC board of directors, UTEC plans to increase enrolment almost tenfold, to 1,900, over the next 10 years.

“UTEC graduates will be able to work in many different sectors,” said Rivera. “The key idea is for UTEC students to work closely with companies during their course, and present specific projects that companies need.”