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Colección: La Educación
Número: (129-131) I,III
Año: 1998

University Autonomy

Misión attributes deterioration of the quality of higher education in Latin America in part to the nature of the relationship between the society, the state and the higher education system. This relationship is presently based on automatic finance, a conception of autonomy as sovereignty, and the absence of regulation of quality (CONUEP 1994; Albornoz 1991). In Latin America, states have virtually left the regulation of universities to the institutions themselves, and funding has had little to do with quality and efficiency. There is no state or institutional governing board to hold the institution(s) accountable. According to Schwartzman:
Public universities [in Latin America] are autonomous regarding governments; departments and schools are autonomous within the universities, and their priorities are seldom those of improving efficiency and performance. There are no incentives to improve internal efficiency in public or government financed institutions, and universities are no exception. Budgetary allocations are usually based on past expenditure, if not on political patronage, and money saved this year can mean a lower budget next time. Beyond some very gross indicators like students per faculty or articles published, there are no consensual indicators of what good performance really is.… (Schwartzman 1991)
Furthermore, in many developing countries, the university has become the site of struggle between dictatorship and democracy (Albornoz 1991). As a result, the concept of university autonomy has “acquired a significant political colouring and become an aspect of the struggle for power” (Albornoz 1991). This characterization would seem to be true in Ecuador.

The Ecuadorian Constitution, Article 28, specifies that the State “recognizes and guarantees the autonomy of universities and polytechnics and the inviolability of their territory, giving them the rights of individuals” (in CONUEP 1994). The government is prevented by the constitution from closing or reorganizing the institutions; neither can it deny a university its financial allocation without just cause. In sum, the Congress or government can not do anything that affects in any way the normal function of a university and especially anything that affects its liberty and autonomy. This has resulted in a lack of overall coordination in the system. When CONUEP has attempted to exercise some sort of monitoring or coordinating function, as when it makes a recommendation on approving a new university, it has often been ignored. In actuality, then, the Congress has recently done quite a bit to affect the normal functioning of some universities by the way in which it has allocated or not allocated the university’s budget, delivered pay checks on time, provided or not provided the promised funds to support research projects, or approved creation of new universities against CONUEP’s recommendations to do so.

In order for the concept of university autonomy to work, a sense of moral and social responsibility on part of the university is necessary (Albornoz 1991; CONUEP 1994). According to Misión (CONUEP 1994), no such sense of social responsibility exists on the part of either the Ecuadorian government or the universities. Personal conversations with Ecuadorian university administrators and faculty members suggest that autonomy, a legacy of the Córdoba Agreement, is a cherished value that opposes any sort of coordination of the universities in the country, leaving the universities in isolation from the society in which they function. Some observers of Ecuadorian higher education even suggest that an outdated neo-Marxist view puts class struggle and politics, rather than quality, at the forefront of the debate about universities.2 One thing is certain: little or no coordination or accountability of universities currently exists.

The only form of direct oversight of universities is financial audit. Few institutions have systematic means for evaluating teaching, their management systems or their overall performance. Obstacles to evaluation are ideological, political and methodological in nature. Few people are trained in program evaluation or know how to use the results of evaluations properly. In the case of one university just beginning a process for student evaluation of teaching, the vice rector for academic affairs was preparing to use results to terminate faculty following two consecutive poor ratings. He had no idea if the instrument used to measure student evaluation of teaching was valid, if ratings would differ by field, nor was he willing to provide faculty development or resources to improve instructional materials available to his mostly part-time, very poorly paid professors. In contrast, another university has a well-established office charged with administering and interpreting results of student evaluations and for initiating faculty development activities.