When it comes to educational heritage, Peru has little competition – its National University of San Marcos is the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere, chartered by Charles V in 1551 – but today, Peru’s educational institutes barely rank among its Latin American peers.
President Ollanta Humala has pledged to restore Peruvian higher education, which has become a sore point in both sustainable development and national pride. Officially, improving the education sector is a part of the country’s diversification efforts to move away from a minerals driven economy.
However, fixing one of the most anemic systems in Latin America hasn’t been easy, and more often than not, controversial.
The creation of a Superintendency of Higher Education under the new University Law, which came into force this year, has caused the greatest commotion.
The Superintendency will, among other things, authorize the creation of new universities, promote the quality of education, impose sanctions, and control the use of public resources.
It will replace the National Association of Rectors or ANR, an autonomous public body made up of the rectors of public and private universities. Unsurprisingly, the ANR called the new law an “aberration”.
The Ministry of Education will appoint the superintendent and organize the public process for recruiting five of the body’s members. This provision of the new law has led to allegations that the university sector will be publicly controlled.
Peru has 142 universities – some 50 are public and 80 private. Of those, 63 are in the process of being accredited.
Among them is the University of Jaén, created two-and-a-half years ago in the Cajamarca region. Although its budget amounts to almost $20 million, the institution functions at a rented site that used to be a market.
“It is impossible to study. It is so hot that sweat stains our copybooks,” student José Oblitas told a local newspaper. Issela Coronel, who studies medical technology at the university, was reported as saying that there were no drains and no water on the second floor. “We do not have labs,” he added.
Universities such as these are colloquially named ‘universidades chicha’ – worthless universities. Every week, one or two of them are rocked by protesting students demanding adequate infrastructure, better education and clean and efficient management.
‘Chicha’ universities proliferated after a 1996 law aimed at promoting investment in educational services offered tax incentives to for-profit higher education institutions.
“In our country, the expansion of university supply has not been accompanied by controls, leading to an impoverishment of academic quality and a disassociation between what universities offer and what the labor market and the country needs,” said Professor Denesy Palacios of Universidad Nacional Hermilio Valdizán, in an article published in Diario Ahora last May.
Palacios added that it was typical of many private universities to run courses that do not require expensive equipment or infrastructure. Further, many masters and PhD students are taught by poorly qualified teachers who cannot guarantee a quality service.
In one infamous case, Luis Cervantes, the rector of Garcilaso de la Vega University, was revealed to be paying himself 2 million sols — nearly $600,000 — a month.
That’s eight times the salary of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, for the leader of a university once ranked No. 4,430 in the world.
The Satirical website El Panfleto published a spoof that summed up the widespread public perception of university administration: joking that armed robbers had attempted to steal San Marcos’s safe but instead were tied up and mugged by the University’s Rector, Pedro Cotillo.
Ricardo Cuenca, an expert in higher education and director of the Institute of Peruvian Studies, one of the country’s top independent research centers, said there was no question the old system badly needed reform, with something like 95 percent of Peruvian schools failing to meet international standards.
“Peruvian universities’ interpretation of ‘autonomy’ has been too intense. It allowed no regulation at all,” Cuenca told GlobalPost.com. “It’s the same for the public and private universities. The only difference is that some private universities here have been making a lot of money out of this system.”
A study by Utero journalist Manuel Bellido showed that Peru’s best universities publish fewer research papers and are ranked lower than their counterparts in Colombia, Chile and Mexico. Most Peruvian universities publish less than one paper for every five professors, and 50% of Peru’s students attend institutions which publish only 2% of the national total.
The University Act places new requirements on higher-education programs and staff. The law limits the age of university deans at 70 years old and requires all university leaders to have completed degrees. Master’s and doctorate degrees must comprise a minimum of 48 and 64 credit hours respectively.
While reformists say the law will reduce the congestion of low-quality institutions in the market, critics including Pedro Pablo Kuczynski say the law removes higher education’s autonomy.
“I’ve always said that the University Act worries me, because it can be interpreted as a way to control what is taught and discussed in universities,” Kuczynski told ElComercio. “It can be seen as a law against freedom of thought and education.”
The University Act does indeed – from any impartial perspective – have some significantly powerful mechanisms of reform. Article 15.1 of the law allows for the government to review and bar any course curriculum it deems of poor quality; critics of the law fear that this regulatory tool will be used for political censorship.
Leading Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori as well as former presidents and current candidates Alan Garcia and Alejandro Toledo also oppose the University Act. Ironically, the only candidate among the top five contenders in favor of the law is Cesar Acuña, who is the founder and owner of Cesar Vallejo University, one of the poorest-performing institutions considered to be part of the problem.
After being signed into law in 2014, the University Act was challenged by the national rectors association in 2015. Last November Peru’s supreme court ruled that the law was constitutional.
About the author: Akshan de Alwis is Diplomatic Courier’s United Nations Correspondent. He visited the National University of San Marcos and Asociación de Universidades del Perú in Lima, Peru. recently.