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


Comprehensive efforts to reform Latin American universities have been traumatic and often ineffective (Schwartzman 1991). One of the lessons Schwartzman draws from the Brazilian and Chilean experiences is that Latin American governments “will be increasingly less able to maintain, supervise and care for the quality of higher education” (372). He is skeptical that Latin American universities can or will make changes on their own and is even more doubtful that governments can introduce necessary changes. Although Schwartzman argues the Latin American university’s ability to achieve competence and societal relevance on its own has given way to a reluctant return to the need for some governmental oversight for higher education, in Ecuador the state has only done this to the extent that CONUEP is an extension of the state. Despite the fact that the different governments of Ecuador have been on a “modernization” track for the past decade, they have failed to invest in education as a means to social progress or to demonstrate much interest in providing oversight or demanding accountability. The universities that are doing well are the private entrepreneurial universities operating outside the system. In this paper, I have attempted to show how establishment of a national evaluation system seeks to rectify this situation by creating an internal accountability system that will “steer” state-sanctioned universities to improve, proving to the Congress and the country that universities are worthy of support while retaining vestiges of autonomy from governmental control.

There are many similarities between the European “evaluative state” described by Neave and the Ecuadorian case. Both view an evaluation system as one means of achieving national goals for higher education by putting the responsibility on individual institutions to perform in a competitive market. However, there are some instructive differences. In Ecuador, the “evaluative state” is top-down initiated only to the extent that CONUEP, a legally constituted group of university rectors, is the primary driving force. Congress appears to be absent from the debate. It is essentially university representatives themselves, along with some outside groups, such as the US Embassy, who are attempting to create such a system. Although one might argue that CONUEP is the state with respect to higher education, the fact that it is composed of the rector from each officially recognized university dilutes its ability to act as a detached, neutral policy setting and enforcing agency.

Rather than establishing national goals for universities, each university will be assessed on how well it accomplishes its mission. Universities will be forced to define their missions more clearly than they are presently defined, thus accomplishing a differentiation of the system without mandating such action. As Neave (1988) argues, this strategy allows—and encourages—universities to respond more quickly to changing societal demands. In Ecuador, an added benefit of this strategy is forcing each university to define its mission. At present only vaguely defined mission statements exist and most of the mission statements are remarkably similar even though informed observers admit that what universities actually do varies widely (Twombly and Urigüen 1996). In addition, although the proposed system is being sold to the universities as completely voluntary, there is an implicit, if not explicit, assumption that all will participate and that the resulting competition between universities will force universities to improve. One of the most confusing aspects of the proposed Ecuadorian scheme is that the incentives for voluntarily participating are unclear. Will recognition that comes with accreditation be sufficient motivation? Universities have good reason to be skeptical about promised financial rewards for good performance.

Neave argues that adopting an evaluative state approach requires two decisions: who will perform the evaluation and what will be the goal of the evaluation. In Ecuador, an independent evaluative body is being proposed to encourage institutional self-study and thus improvement, as has long been the case in the U.S. However, identifying an objective external body to administer the evaluation and an objective pool of peers in a small country in which corruption and politics play a major role poses a serious challenge to the creation of a fair system that will gain legitimacy. Including evaluators from outside the country was being discussed as an alternative.

The goals of the proposed system are less clear. On the surface at least, I argue there are two goals: the stated goal, which is individual institutional reform and reform of the entire system to make the universities more responsive to the demands of the society and therefore of higher quality. Because there is no consensus on standards of quality, the goal is no more detailed than this. However, there is a second, unstated goal: to control universities.

In contrast to the European experience, Ecuador’s approach to the evaluative state is a truly a bottom-up process. There is no central agency that is giving power away or using this policy mechanism to control higher education by remote control. Representatives of universities themselves have recognized a need for this system and are pushing for its creation. Rather than a process of decentralization, the proposed system represents an attempt to achieve a loose form of centralization in which universities will become more responsible on one level to their mission and presumably to the public and the state in the process. If the evaluation and accreditation system is implemented, a great deal of the responsibility for accomplishing an institution’s mission will be shifted to professors and individual faculties. Now relatively autonomous, an evaluation system will make faculties more accountable to their own institution’s mission. That shift is already beginning as several universities seek to implement harsh faculty evaluation policies.

Another difference between the European and Ecuadorian cases is that the latter system is being proposed not to fine-tune a well-honed machine, but to serve as the mechanism to reform the entire system. It is clear that no a priori definition of a quality Ecuadorian university exists, and that such a normative definition will only emerge from early self-studies. The Ecuadorian system further assumes that universities function in a rational way: that they will identify weaknesses and then design and carry out improvement processes. Furthermore, it assumes that institutions have the resources—human, technical, ethical and financial—to carry out institutional self-study and evaluation and to make changes. The evaluative state may work well in a basically sound system that needs minor and frequent adjustments. Will it work as the policy around which reform of an entire system is dependent? Guillermo Falconí, director of SEAU and Iván Carvajal, author of the draft outlining the criteria guiding institutional self study, both argue that the system will only work if it becomes part of the law governing universities and polytechnics. Will the evaluation system have any more luck in Congress than reform of the way rectors are elected? Will codification kill evaluation and accreditation? These are just some of the many questions that face Ecuador as it embarks on its ambitious plan for establishing a system for evaluation and accreditation.

These questions bring us back to the political environment in which universities exist. If the society does not really value education, the citizenry does not perceive that higher education leads to better jobs and social mobility; and corruption and politics supercede rational planning, chances of an evaluation and accreditation system making a substantial difference are slim. On the other hand, the mere existence of a university such as San Francisco of Quito and the other entrepreneurial universities has seemingly brought traditional university leaders to the realization that change has to happen. If even a few public universities engage in self-study and improve by whatever measure, others may be forced to follow. Ecuadorian educational leaders have also recognized similar evaluation efforts in neighboring countries and the need to compete in a global society.

Financial crisis coupled with the threat of private entrepreneurial universities and a rapidly changing global context in which universities exist suggest that planned, top-down structural reform of higher education systems may no longer possible or appropriate in Latin America. In contrast to reforms that are specific, large-scale, and embedded in law, accreditation and evaluation fosters a much different, and potentially more responsive approach to reform. It is much more difficult to change a law in a country such as Ecuador than it is to tinker with the criteria, indicators and process of institutional evaluation. Ironically, many of the advantages of the “evaluative state” may be lost if Falconí and Carvajahal are correct that the evaluation and accreditation system must become law in order to be effective.

The challenges of reforming Ecuadorian universities are many and the stakes are high. Certainly establishing and implementing a system of institutional evaluation and accreditation will not magically result in high quality universities. There are many substantive and procedural decisions to be made, not to mention overcoming the existing concept of autonomy that currently sets the nature of the state-university relationship. For example, the goal of reforming higher education toward what end remains problematic. At this time, the question of what a quality Ecuadorian university looks like is very much unresolved, as is the matter of incentives for participating in, and sanctions for not performing well in an evaluation. The best evaluation efforts may be for naught if the role and method of electing rectors do not change or if some admissions requirements are not adopted. Despite the overwhelming challenges facing Ecuadorian higher education, in this particular time and context, the use of evaluation and accreditation as a means of steering institutional reform toward a general goal may be the most appropriate strategy in a post-modern global society. The new private entrepreneurial universities will undoubtedly survive; however their programs are not tied to an overall educational policy, but rather to short-term needs of specific economic sectors. The very viability of Ecuador’s traditional private and public universities to serve a democratic Ecuadorian society may depend on success of the proposed evaluation and accreditation system to bring about much needed changes.