Health & Education

Taming the shrew, turning the screws


In a sector plagued by poverty, geographical disparities, under-regulated for-profit institutions, and brain drain, signs of hope nonetheless emerge.

With a median age of 26 and a population that has nearly doubled since 1980, the past few decades have seen a no less dramatic increase in Peru’s higher education system—and the need for its improvement. Whereas the country could only boast seven universities in 1962, by 1991 that number had increased to 51. But nothing compares with the growth of the educational system in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in response to an explosion of secondary graduates and a 1996 law that offered tax incentives for for-profit institutions in an effort to promote investment in educational services. By 2016, Peru had 142 universities, 31 of which are public and the rest private. Of these, more than 50 are concentrated in Lima, only several of which are public.

The problem, of course, is that quantity and quality are not always bedfellows. While the country boasts excellent public institutions such as Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and first-rate private ones like Pontificia Universidad Católica de Peru (PUCP)—in addition to a small but excellent and growing coterie of specialized institutions offering programs in business, finance, design, and culinary arts, among others—far too many institutes of higher learning offer Peruvian students sub-par services. And while public institutions have mostly maintained the public’s trust, the 1996 law unleashed a vast proliferation of subpar, for-profit, private universities now disparagingly referred to as “chicha universities” (after the popular fermented corn beverage) that overcharge students while under-serving them. Scarcely a week goes by in which one of these is not rocked by student protests demanding better education, infrastructure and administration.

The government strikes back

In response to these and other structural shortcomings, the government of former President Humala decided to strike back. Starting with the controversial University Law in August 2014, it sought to institute public oversight over the country’s booming higher education industry by creating a Superintendency of Higher Education (SUNEDU). This body has the sole power to authorize the creation of new universities, impose sanctions on those who fail to live up to standards, promote the quality of education, and control the use of public resources. Crucially, it also set a five-year moratorium on the creation of any new universities.
The new law not only replaces the National Association of Rectors (ANR), an autonomous body of deans from public and private universities, it also caps the age of university deans at 70 and bars anyone without a doctorate from holding said office. Unsurprisingly, the ANR vigorously denounced the law. Even after it went into effect on December 31, 2015, many deans continued to openly flout it. Pedro Cotillo, for instance, dean of the 450-year old Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, said that “only with tanks” could they oust him for not implementing the University Law. Though challenged in court by the ANR, Peru’s supreme court declared it constitutional in November 2015.

Private remedies for public ills?

Three other persistent critiques of the Peruvian system of higher education are its high costs, its lack of proximity for students living outside of Lima, and its poorly qualified teachers. But these are problems that various players are working hard to resolve. CENTRUM, for example, the business school of the PUCP, is trying to solve the question of geographic access. In so doing, it has built remote campuses in 10 of Peru’s largest metropolitan areas, in addition to sites in Colombia and Ecuador.

Another school tackling these problems is Gerens, an adult higher learning institute that offers advanced postgraduate degrees for mining engineers, geologists, chemists and other experienced managers in the field. Founded by leading faculty members of a prestigious business school, Gerens’ goal is to educate mining professionals over 40. Since many of their students have spent their working careers out in the field—often in rural and isolated parts of the country—they too often lack the soft skills and business language needed to close and manage bigger deals and projects. Which is precisely where Gerens’ strategically crafted curriculum comes in.

Innova is another private education provider trying to close the cost gap by providing high-quality secondary education for Peru’s rising middle class (now estimated at 10 million people). Since 80% of current Peru’s private schools are small and poorly funded, Innova sees a crucial opening to serve those making in the neighborhood of USD1,500 per month by charging monthly tuition of USD120 per month. Constructing an average six buildings a year, Innova hopes to operate 100 schools by 2015. It also has a vigorous and innovative pedagogical approach. Encouraging its students to be self-propelled life-long learners, pupils at Innova’s schools spend 70% of their time on group-learning exercises and 30% on self-learning. As of 2016, they are serving 25,000 students in 35 schools.

Innovate or perish

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of pressure not only to meet current international standards, but to innovate on one’s own. In fact, this often means one and the same thing. Thus are many of Peru’s cutting edge educational institutes working to incorporate cutting edge technology and methods into their curriculum. CENTRUM, for example, has recently introduced CentrumX, Peru’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), free of charge no less. Already with 11 MBA courses and five Executive Education courses on offer, CENTRUM will offer 16 additional MBA courses by the end of 2016. What is more, by the end of the first quarter of 2016, every classroom had interactive blackboards, smart projectors, and new videoconferencing equipment. It also just launched a dual MBA and MSc in Food Science Management, a bilingual program aimed at managers in the global food industry.

Not just business schools are following suit. Innova, for its part, has also embarked upon an ambitious partnership with researchers at the University of California-Berkeley to develop educational models for three, four, and five-year old students. And Gerens, the graduate school for mining studies, has begun to offer specialized courses on mining cases and mining business games in order to train their graduates to think and communicate more strategically. Meanwhile, Gisella Orjeda, President of Peru’s National Council of Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (CONCYTEC), has been urging universities across the country to work together to build a knowledge economy. And CONCYTEC seems to be putting its money where its mouth is: In the past three years alone, it has greatly expanded its budget, from PEN5 million (USD1.5 million) to PEN110 million (USD32.3 million) for further R&D.


One of the other biggest drawbacks of the Peruvian education sector is the considerable brain drain its shortcomings lead to. Either for lack of educational opportunities at home or better employment prospects abroad, many of Peru’s best and brightest decamp to Europe or the US or neighboring Latin American countries at the first opportunity. According to Miguel Palacios Celi, national dean of the Colegio Médico de Peru, the majority of all generically trained doctors—those with no specialization—go abroad once they complete their studies in Peru. According to people like Fernando D’Alessio, Director of CENTRUM, only an aggressive approach to internationalizing Peru’s educational institutes will help them compete on a global level. This is why in 2014 it launched two new tri-continental MBA programs that include five months of coursework at business schools in the US or Europe. What is more, CENTRUM now also hosts international students for seven-month periods in Lima each year.

Gerens also struck up a partnership with the Colorado School of Mines, one of the best in the world in its field. In addition to studying in Golden, Colorado for a semester, students at Gerens also get the opportunity to study water and energy management at Colorado State and learn from managers at leading public water and energy agencies in the US. One such agency is Northern Water, a body that manages 12 reservoirs, 35 miles of tunnels and 95 miles of canals on both sides of the continental divide. Gerens also has an agreement to host two professors from Colorado each year that teach mineral economics and operations research.
Overall, the education sector in Peru is heading in the right direction—but the faster it moves the better. Its structural defaults are many: high costs, low services, often poorly qualified teachers, lack of access outside the country’s capital, and, last but far from least, a vast proliferation of unregulated and poorly managed for-profit private universities.

But there are also many encouraging signs, the first of which is a government more intent on regulating the quality of the educational field and ensuring excellence therein. The second is a robust private sector of innovative ventures seeking to cut the cost of higher education, expand its geographical reach, innovate and incorporate new methodologies and technologies, and open up to the rest of the world through coordinated research, work, and exchange programs. With over 1 million university students and an ever-growing middle class that is eager to invest in quality education, the market for low-cost, high-quality education in Peru has never been riper for the taking.

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