Focus: Education

On to Greater Things

On to Greater Things

Jun. 23, 2013

Currently, national primary school enrollment exceeds 100% for both male and female students, and 51% of female students are enrolled in tertiary education. The government has stated its intention to raise the number of students enrolled in post-secondary education or additional training from 37% overall in 2010 to 50% in 2014. Studies carried out by the World Bank show that Colombians with a Bachelor's degree can earn about 3.5 times more than those with only a high school certificate, and students with a Master's can hope to earn eight times more than their high-school only counterparts.

According to law, 10% of the national budget must be spent on education on a yearly basis. However, according to statistics from the UN, approximately 5% of government expenditure on average was allocated toward education from 2005-2011.


Since the government installed its Free Education Policy in 2011, public school has been free for students of any social status up until graduation from high school. Meanwhile, the shortage in supply for students seeking to take advantage of free schooling has opened up a new niche for private schools, which advertise smaller classes and higher standards as a selling point.

Because public schools are fully supported by the state and are the most demanded by students, the competition is fierce for a seat in public higher education institutes. Although places are guaranteed in primary and secondary schools for all children up to age 17, students wishing to pursue higher education face the state exam for higher education (ICFES), or SABER, which, depending on the students' results, can make or break their chances for further learning. The 32 public universities in Colombia combined have only 600,000 available enrollment seats, and current estimates indicate that 3.2 million secondary-school graduates do not go on to higher education due to the lack of spaces. Pioneering the public university sphere since its inception in 1830, the National University of Colombia currently has 40,000 undergraduate students and 8,000 post-graduate students enrolled. “Our institution trains around 40% of the country's PhD candidates, and we have been a pioneer center in this field." Ignacio Mantilla Prada, Rector of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL), explained to TBY. “We were the first university offering PhD programs back in 1986."

Meanwhile, private schools charge tuition, with some much more expensive than others. These schools have longer daily schedules and provide extracurricular activities. The widervariety of activities and smaller groups, combined with access to more resources, has led many parents to choose private schools, considering them to be of higher quality. As well, many private schools in Colombia are bilingual. One such university is Universidad de los Andres, one of the top 10 higher education institutions in Latin America and the top-ranked private school of its type in Colombia. “One of the things that characterizes this university is that about 22% of our students are graduating in two disciplines," Pablo Navas Sanz de Santamaría, Rector of the university, said, adding, “This gives them a broader view of what is happening in the world, and it is a much more thorough and solid education."

For investors, a regulatory framework could be developed to ensure profitability from building a tertiary education institution, while making sure that the overall quality of the education system is sustained. Although some believe that for-profit universities cannot achieve the top tier in terms of teaching or research quality, the critical short-term target is to grant access to higher education to people who would otherwise not be able to pursue formal tertiary studies. In that sense, a better framework for investors could directly increase the country's skilled human capital.


The Colombian government is not alone in its efforts to boost the quality and quantity of educational options for students. International and regional institutions have also reached out to the rapidly developing nation, recognizing the need of its young demographic.

In response to Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) findings that Colombian students are up to three years behind in comparison with those from developed nations such as France and the UK. The Inter-American Development Bank approved a loan for $46 million to reduce educational lags and inequities and improve coverage in March 2012. The Ministry of Education will carry out the program, which aims to modernize the management of educational institutions, offer programs of citizenship skills in basic education, and revitalize technical and technological education. In total, 4,200 educational institutions and 60,000 students are expected to benefit from the project.

The World Bank also collaborates with Colombia in the education sector. The organization offers an integrated package of financial products such as lending for projects. In addition, the World Bank gives technical assistance and analytical support to cooperate with the main stakeholders in national education programs. Through these gestures, the World Bank facilitates knowledge exchange between Colombia and the world.


Since young people comprise about 30% of the nation's population, educating them to meet the needs of the market is of utmost importance to secure Colombia's economic future. Despite recent reform efforts and huge amounts of capital injected into the sector, local companies still see a shortage of qualified workers, especially in the field of technology and sciences. “There is a huge difference between demand and what is on offer, especially in geo-sciences positions," Duarte Ramos, Managing Director of Hays, explained to TBY. As in many developed nations, “There is an excess of people in social disciplines, psychology, sociology, and other social sciences, while there is a big skills shortage in geosciences and engineering for the oil and gas sector, as well as for mining." According to a study published by Hays, 38% of the country's oil and gas sector workforce are expatriates, indicating that many companies struggle to find the right employees. Incentives and scholarships offered to students in the educational areas most demanded by the market could spark a turnaround in this trend. For now, encouraging Colombians to move on to tertiary education will remain a key priority.