The aftermath of 14 fallen higher education institutions

Ecuador’s higher education sector is on track again after the dramatic 12 April 2012 suspension of 14 higher education institutions that did not meet quality standards set by the government.

The contingency plan for displaced students, academics and administrative staff is working well, while the remaining 57 higher education bodies are bracing themselves for a new round of accreditation and internal and external assessments.

Ninety-seven percent of the 41,000 students who applied for the government’s contingency plan were admitted. Those who chose to finish their studies at their institution of origin (under temporary administrators) will be graduating this month.

And a general extension of the grace period for student loans, from six to 12 months, has brought relief for 2,413 students from shuttered institutions who owe US$7 million in total.

While they look for permanent posts, many displaced academics are teaching subjects that were part of the contingency plan.

Preparations for this year’s accreditation and assessments are under way and are taking on a newfound pressure. Heads of higher education bodies know that their continued existence depends on meeting minimum standards of academic and research capacity and performance, teacher quality, level of infrastructure, administration and finances.

Iván Borja, director of social development for the Ecuador-based think-tank Grupo Faro, told University World News that he knew of three universities that were working closely with the national secretariat for higher education, science, technology and innovation (Senescyt) on accreditation and assessment.

“This is good for the universities concerned. They may be overwhelmed by the secretariat’s demands but their link with Senescyt is helping them improve their academic and administrative process and gain experience in these areas.”

Universities are also focusing on meeting targets set by the 2010 law on higher education, or LOES, especially one that requires all ‘principal’ professors to have PhDs by 2017.

The concern is whether academics will get their doctorates in time, what will happen if they do not and, if they do, whether they will be able to do research in the less-than-adequate conditions facing Ecuadorian universities.

On top of all this, universities are dealing with the academic, administrative and financial implications of the Teaching Profession and Grading Act.

President Rafael Correa’s fingerprints are all over Ecuador’s extensive reforms, with his belief that improving higher education is crucial for the country’s economic and social development.

In his weekly TV slot, Correa revealed last October that Ecuador spends 1.86% of its gross domestic product on education – the highest in Latin America.

“Improving higher education is not only a problem of money but of poor resource allocation, of mediocrity, of groups that took hold of university education,” Correa said vehemently.

The president talked of the need to lure back highly trained expatriates as well as foreign experts, praising a private initiative that is bringing 150 Spanish professors to train local academics.

Correa also announced that technical education would be restructured. Among other things, a unified first degree, a year-long first degree and a two-year postgraduate degree will be introduced.

The government has set a goal of having 23% of its students opting for a technical career stream by 2016. To reach the target, 40 new institutes – averaging 3,300 students each – will be set up. They will offer subjects such as textiles, fishing, transport, tourism, biotechnology industry and primary health.

The government’s quality measures are being complemented by investment in new universities in order to meet the high demand for higher education, which has doubled in the past two decades.

Already under way is the installation of the Universidad Regional Amazónica, IKIAM, in the southern Amazon.

IKIAM will operate from three university sites and four technical institutes. The latter will train personnel for the oil industry, primary health care, mining and the environment.

“Each career will last a year, and graduates will leave fully equipped for jobs in a productive sector,” explained Augusto Espinoza, knowledge and human talent minister, at a launching ceremony on 17 January.