College education

“No upward mobility”

In Latin America, only children from well to-do families tend to get a chance to study. Lacking access to higher learning has become a mobilising issue for social activists.

Interview with Ramón Garcia-Ziemsen

What was your first impression when you started your new job as lecturer at the private Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, ­Co­lombia?
I was really impressed. The university is equipped with everything, only the best will do. The Universidad del Norte resembles universities in the USA. For instance, you’ll find 20 Apple computers in a room; everything is state-of-the-art. I felt like being on a space ship full of students. On campus, you’ll find more employees and gardeners than students. Obviously, a status-conscious elite is being formed here. The Universidad del Norte is excellent, but also very expensive.

Who has access to universities?
Access is a sensitive point in Colombia. Of 100 kids who finish high school, only a quarter will get higher education; that is a bad average by international standards. Access to a public university is very difficult, and the access to a private university is very expensive, with fees of € 1000 to € 3000 per term. But the minimum wage in Colombia is only € 200 per month, so the disproportion is obvious.

Is higher education related to income in ­Colombia?
Yes, and the problem begins at an earlier stage: Only attending a private school guarantees good enough marks to get access to a good university. Even highly gifted students don’t manage to go to university unless they attend private schools. But private schools charge high tuition fees which only children of well-off parents can afford. The system of grants is weak and, if anything, has merely symbolic value. It is impossible to finance your studies this way. Consequently, social inequality is being cemented by the hermetic education system. The middle class is slowly disappearing and poverty is growing – despite positive macro-economic figures.

For months, student protests in Latin America have been in the news. What exactly is going on?
The protests started in Chile, and the wave soon reached other Latin American countries. In fact, students in various countries are suffering, because of exclusive education systems that bar access to the majority of them. But there are great differences. Argentina, for instance, has a much more egalitarian tradition of education and produced various Nobel prize winners – which is no coincidence, but proof of a well-functioning education system. In countries like Chile, on the other hand, neoliberal tendencies have had their impact on education.

What about Colombia?
In Colombia, we see a strong hierarchisation of so­ciety, with a history of violence and paternalism, and no upward mobility whatsoever. In this country, students have protested against further privatisation of public universities or their cooperation with the industry. In the middle range, this would put the independence of the universities in doubt.

Does it matter where one graduates?
For most jobs, it is absolutely decisive at which university a student has graduated. Vacancy notices state blatantly: “We are looking for graduates from university XYZ”. Ultimately, the ruling classes keep everyone else out, because only the wealthy can pay for their children going to certain schools and certain universities, and accordingly, only they qualify for certain jobs.

If higher education in Chile or Colombia ­depends on the level of parental income, what are the social consequences in the middle
and long term?

An inadequate education system results in the squandering of human talent. Good people without money won’t make it to important positions. Social disparities are likely to be aggravated. Consequently, in Colombia we have a poverty level of 50 % to 60 % of the people; there are no official figures. Social unrest is predictable.

What role do universities play in the ­development of a country?
They can play a decisive role, because education can reduce or aggravate social differences. The state must provide a system of stipends and grants, in order to promote students from lower-income ­families.

Is there a country in Latin America, which in your opinion is a model regarding education?
Several countries have good education systems. Argentina, for instance, has good public colleges and universities, all free of charge. Cuba offers complete access to its universities; the idea being that equality means that everybody has the right to education. Therefore, the level of schooling in Cuba is excellent, and so is the access to education. But let’s not forget that there is no academic freedom there. We shouldn’t talk about education in Cuba without mentioning its dire human rights record.

What calls your attention regarding Colombian universities?
In journalism and communication, the area I know best, I find it striking that teaching lacks in practical relevance. The curriculum is very rigid; students are hardly meant to work in a creative and self-reliant way. But the atmosphere is very friendly and marked by solidarity. The universities, moreover, are keen on international exchange. In any case, I enjoy teaching here.

Questions by Sheila Mysorekar.

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