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

Introduction

Like many countries in Latin America, Ecuador’s system of higher education faces an ever deepening financial crisis accompanied by a perceived decline in quality. The number of students in the system’s 29 official public and private universities1 (which still receive some funding from the State) has mushroomed to more than 200,000, while funding from the State has gradually decreased (Jameson 1997; USIS 1993) from 29% of the national budget in 1979 to 14% in 1998 (Fraser 1998). The financial situation of universities worsened in 1995 due to expenses incurred in Ecuador’s border war against Peru (Jameson 1997). Under-prepared students inundate Ecuador’s open access public universities siphoning already scarce resources, graduation rates are said to be about 10% in public universities (higher in the privates), and a large percentage of faculty are part-time and do little research. A recent study of graduate programs in Ecuadorian universities revealed a lack of funds, inadequate libraries and little use of scientific publications from other countries (Rodríguez 1994). These problems are merely symptomatic of larger difficulties in the entire higher education “system.”

Traditional universities also face growing competition from new private universities. Many of these are branches of universities based in other countries, such as Brookdale Community College (New Jersey, USA) and University of the Americas (Chile). These universities offer low-cost (for the provider) popular courses of study and non-traditional modes of delivery to the extent that students with the financial ability are willing to pay (Jameson 1997). The relatively new homegrown University of San Francisco poses a particular threat to the traditional universities in Quito because it models itself after a US liberal arts college, offers a bilingual education and has more full-time faculty members with doctorates than other universities. The Technical University of the Equator offers responsive, technically oriented programs in a variety of practical areas. Because, in some cases, these new universities operate outside the legal framework that regulates other Ecuadorian universities, they can organize and govern themselves differently and are able to respond more quickly to societal trends and needs. San Francisco University, for example, does not comply with the Law of 1982’s requirement that the rector be elected by coalitions of students, workers and faculty members.

In its project, Universidad Ecuatoriana: Misión para el Siglo XXI, the Consejo Nacional de Universidades y Escuelas Politécnicas (CONUEP) identified some of the universities’ critical weaknesses: a tenuous relationship between universities and polytechnics and the external environment, poor academic quality, weak administration, insufficient economic resources, and absence of any tradition of accountability (CONUEP 1994). It is the gap between what society needs from universities and what universities provide that university leaders cite as the most serious problem. There is a growing belief in Ecuador that traditional universities no longer contribute to either economic development or solution of social problems to the degree expected of publicly funded universities (Hurtado 1992; USIS 1993; Winkler 1994). The meaning of this desirable relationship between higher education and society is vague. It can mean engaging in applied research that can be transferred to the solution of social problems, but for university faculty and administrators it most often seems to mean correspondence (or lack thereof) between university curricula and current professional demands. For example, it can mean that medical school curricula are training students for a world of practice that no longer exists. It can also mean that universities persist in training sociologists, philosophers and lawyers when a developing, modernizing society desperately needs engineers and experts in business management.

Regardless of the meaning of the society-higher education relationship, crisis is the word used by most Ecuadorian university, government, and business leaders as well as outsiders, such as US Embassy officials, to describe the state of higher education in Ecuador. Although a careful look at the nation’s universities reveals some success stories, such as the Catholic University in Guayaquil, the Technical University of the Equator, the Catholic University of Quito, the University of Azuay, and the National Polytechnical University, generally speaking the quality of universities is low for a country intent on entering the global market. Even though one might argue that Ecuadorian universities are much better than should be expected given the lack of facilities, the huge numbers of under-prepared students and lack of funding, most university leaders agree that they are not doing well.

At this time, accountability in the form of accreditation and evaluation seems to be the most promising response to the perceived gap between society and the universities. In the absence of other viable reform efforts, evaluation and accreditation have emerged as the major (or only) initiative around which there is much support. The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of accreditation and evaluation as reform of higher education in Ecuador. Accreditation and evaluation provides an interesting approach to reform in a post-modern world. There is currently little oversight of universities in Ecuador. At present, universities have only to comply with the law governing higher education in order to be accredited by the Congress. This law states, among other things, that all graduates of secondary schools are guaranteed access to an essentially free university education and that rectors and deans must be elected by coalitions of students, faculty and other university workers. Thus, current standards for accreditation are minimal and are more closely tied to a set of socio-political goals than to institutional quality as currently defined. Despite widespread criticism of higher education, no centralized mechanism exists to effect the necessary reform measures to deal with the problems identified. Jameson describes the situation as a “policy vacuum” (1997).

In this paper I argue that in light of likely failure of specific, formal, national reform efforts (i.e., legislation to change the way rectors are elected), for reasons that will be elaborated below, those charged with leadership of the higher education system have chosen the more subtle “remote control” mechanisms of evaluation and accreditation to “steer” universities to improved quality and, in the process, a tighter relationship between society and the university. Current efforts at university reform in Ecuador can be described as “bottom up”. Reform that is currently occurring is found at the institutional level (Jameson 1997), and the impetus to establish an institutional evaluation and accreditation system comes primarily from university leaders themselves. One of the desired outcomes of the evaluation and accreditation system is to break the vacuum and to secure the financial, if not moral, support of the government. I also argue that Ecuador’s attempt to create an institutional evaluation and accreditation process reflects a post-modern approach to reform in a world in which the modern concept of reform as a rational, planned, structural, top-down initiated organizational or curricular change may no longer hold currency. In the sections that follow, I discuss the role of higher education in modern society, educational reform in Ecuador, university autonomy, the evaluative state, evaluation and accreditation in Ecuador and then conclude by discussing what is happening in relation to Neave’s concept of the evaluative state.