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

Higher Education and the Modern State

In the recent past, Ecuador’s government has suffered several major internal crises and embarrassments: a debilitating border war with neighboring Peru; several years in which periods of sustained electrical blackouts (on the surface due to shortages in rainfall, but also due to the failure of the government to invest in power plants) greatly affected all aspects of daily life; charges of misuse of funds against former vice-president, Alberto Dahik, and his subsequent flight from the country; and most recently the fiasco surrounding the replacement of President Abdalá Bucaram, who was forced to step down only six months into his presidency.

These events are symbolic of the political context in which Ecuadorian higher education exists. Universities are unquestionably influenced by the society of which they are a part, and, as Sheldon Rothblatt argues, “Universities can only be as flexible, responsive, progressive, enlightened, and as vital as the broader political traditions their societies allow” (Rothblatt 1995). The obstacles to educational reform in Latin America are often as much political as technical (Puryear 1997). Although a relatively stable country politically, the climate symbolized by the above examples is one of the difficulties facing Ecuadorian higher education. In fact, the expensive war with Peru had direct effects on the State’s ability to fund a range of programs.

It is within this context of economic crisis and political ineffectiveness that a few university leaders are proposing a system of university evaluation and accreditation as a means of bringing universities in line with the needs of a post industrial global economy. Universities in Ecuador are caught in transition between the traditional Napoleonic university that historically trained elites for primary professional positions (law, medicine, and theology), and the post-modern university whose role in the new global economy is to contribute to the “performativity” of the economic system by training technologically skilled workers (Lyotard in Bloland 1995). In this framework the post-modern university is judged by its ability to deliver desirable outputs (technically useful knowledge) at the lowest possible cost (Bloland 1995), rather than for its ability to certify workers for the state bureaucracy, confirm class status, provide mass education, etc.

To complicate the transition, Ecuadorian public universities are still operating under a concept of university-society relations and a definition of autonomy established in the Córdoba Agreement of 1918. Although the university-society paradigm created by the Córdoba Agreement served to bring about very positive changes in 1918, notably democratizing the universities and protecting them from government interference, the concept of democracy, autonomy and university governance promoted by this watershed event may be at odds with pressures faced by universities at the end of the 20th century. In fact, the legacy of this paradigm, while having many positive effects, may have inadvertently contributed to some of the problems facing Ecuadorian universities. For example, most informed observers of the higher education system, as well as leaders in many private universities, blame the process by which rectors are elected for contributing in no small way to the problems facing Ecuadorian universities, notably the public ones. Student strikes frequently paralyze public universities’ efforts to change.

In his discussion of post-modern higher education, Bloland (1995) identifies two characteristics of modern, liberal states. First, they are typically concerned about the quality of education and make significant investments in a public education system. And secondly, higher education, as the purveyor of expert professional and scientific knowledge distributed on meritocratic criteria, is the basis for further social and economic development. Thus, the liberal state ideally recognizes the value of and makes particularly heavy investments in higher education. Although worldwide, public financial investments in higher education are undergoing reductions, public interest in higher education as measured by demands for accountability of the educational system has not decreased.

Puryear questions whether Latin American governments have made education the political priority it needs to be in order for real reform to occur. Political institutions (e.g., ministries of education and organizations such as CONUEP) responsible for education policy are often weak (Puryear 1997). Moreover, several authors (de Ibarrola 1997; Puryear 1997; Council on Foreign Relations 1997) question whether a link exists in Latin America between education and the economy. In fact, de Ibarrola (1997) argues that economic growth and education can actually compete with and conflict with each other. Global economic trends favor an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer, while education can be conceptualized as a “good” for everyone (de Ibarrola 1997). Furthermore, in contrast to the US for example, the citizenry has little say on education policy. Those who can afford to do so avoid the public education system at all levels, thus removing the most likely advocates for quality.

The case of Ecuador seems to support these contentions. Commitments to education as a means to social progress are tentative at best in Ecuador. (See Jameson 1997 for a more in-depth discussion of the economics of Ecuadorian higher education.) Lack of attention to the education system by Congress and other political leaders, for the various reasons cited earlier, makes reform of Ecuadorian universities at the national level difficult (Jameson 1997). Perhaps private universities, traditionally the source of higher education of the upper classes, will continue to be “good enough”, but in Ecuador, with among the highest percentages of poor and indigenous people in Latin America, the success of the country depends in no small part on the effectiveness of the public higher education system to provide adequate education for the masses.

Lack of interest in education as an instrument of progress in Ecuador can be measured in many ways: by decline in dollars invested in the system, by percentage of the population with elementary and secondary education, or conversely by the rate of illiteracy. (See Jameson 1997 for a further support for this contention.) It can also be measured by the fact that only approximately 10% of students who enter public universities graduate (CONUEP 1994). Even at one private university, few of the many students who study business administration actually graduate (Personal communication, Universidad del Azuay, 1995). The reason, administrators argue, is that employers do not view a degree as essential to employment. (The fact that all students must complete a thesis in order to graduate with a licenciatura undoubtedly also contributes to the low completion rate. Just imagine what the graduation rate would be in the US if all undergraduates had to write a thesis!) Lack of support can also be measured by interest in the popular press. Although opinion pieces about the poor quality of education routinely appear in the major papers, officials at the US Embassy note that it is difficult to find members of Congress who show interest in higher education.

The point to be made about higher education in Ecuador is that the Congress and the “people” seem remarkably unconcerned about education. It is the universities themselves through CONUEP, not the Congress or Ministry of Education, that are advocating a university accreditation and evaluation system (a move to the evaluative state); not because the Ministry of Education or the Congress is demanding greater accountability and higher quality from its universities, but because the state is not. In light of severe economic conditions, education takes a back seat to economic reforms designed to cope with debt and to help Ecuador modernize (privatize) and join the global economy. There appears to be little recognized connection between the economy and investment in higher education. When and where education does appear as a concern (for example, in the Camera of Production), the focus is technological education. In this debate, education at all levels is a peripheral rather than central part of the modernization conversation. In fact, a recent report issued by the Council on International Relations (1997) suggests that one of the reasons that Latin American countries have not transformed their economies as quickly as many Asian countries is due to a lack of emphasis on education. Of course, recent economic collapse in Asian countries calls into question the assumption that investment in education will guarantee economic progress. In the case of Ecuador, the move to an evaluative state originates within the higher education community itself, not from public pressure or interest. The system of accreditation and evaluation is viewed as one means to bring about reform of a system that will not or cannot reform itself.

Although involvement of top-level politicians is not always positive, attention at the highest levels is necessary to effect change. In this era of accountability, it is remarkable that almost no one in Ecuador will say, “You must improve if you want our money.” In fact, CONUEP turns the argument around, implicitly if not explicitly: if universities improve and somehow become better linked to ill-defined societal goals and needs in some vaguely specified “better” relationship, the government will become interested and will give universities more money. CONUEP and university representatives seem to believe that the way to recreate a positive relationship between state, society and the university is by placing universities in a competitive situation in which evaluation and accreditation, the results of which will be published, will force universities to improve (i.e., offer high quality programs to meet the technical workforce needs of the country.) Thus, universities will earn the respect and support of the people and the Congress, and thereby receive more financial support by training certain kinds of workers and by evaluating themselves to quality.