TBY talks to Ignacio Mantilla Prada, Rector of the National University of Colombia (UNAL), on the evolution of the higher education system.

How would you assess the evolution of the higher education system in Colombia?

The tertiary education system in Colombia, like that of a number of other Latin American countries, places special emphasis on the social sciences. That means that the level of specialization in technical programs is slightly lower. In my opinion, the sector must shift its focus of attention toward the current needs of the country: applied sciences and the professions. Colombia lacks a strong and large road infrastructure network, and therefore we must strengthen engineering programs across the country in order to make Colombian companies more competitive. In addition, we should boost technological research.

What are UNAL's curricular strengths?

We are highly recognized for our medical studies, although we currently lack a university hospital where students can carry out research. Also, we have a very good reputation in terms of engineering programs and we are one of the only higher education centers in the country that offers high-standard programs for basic sciences: mathematics, biology, and statistics, to name a few. Our alumni in these areas are well-known throughout the country. Therefore, I believe that UNAL plays a more important role in the sciences field as compared to other higher education institutions in the country. Additionally, the university has high levels of penetration in bordering urban centers such as San Andrés, Tumaco, and Arauca. The university has a very strong presence outside of Bogotá, and that's a clear differentiating factor. However, I believe that the national government should boost the arrival of students from rural Colombia to the main cities through a more extensive scholarship program. Overall, our institution plays a key social role in bringing higher education closer to some strata of society. In this regard, our university currently has 40,000 undergraduate students. In fact, we have 8,000 students in our several post-graduate programs. In addition, our institution trains around 40% of the country's PhD candidates, and we have been a pioneer center in this field—we were the first university offering PhD programs back in 1986. We have also played a very important role in training professors for doctoral programs at the national level, and I would even say that we set many national standards in this field.

“We must strengthen engineering programs across the country in order to make Colombian companies more competitive."

How much can students expect to pay in tuition fees?

The cost of the tuition fees for undergraduate programs is linked to the family income of every particular student, and also their subject of study—whether it be engineering, social sciences, or humanities. Overall, costs can vary from Ps100,000 to Ps4 million per semester. In terms of post-graduate courses, tuition fees are the same.

How significant are relations with companies from the private sector in offering training opportunities in the field?

This is one of our weaknesses as compared to other universities. Over the years, we have introduced training opportunities for our students in terms of accepting work experience for thesis and final project purposes. However, it is not very common for our students to take up such opportunities. I believe that other institutions have a stronger focus on how to better position their students in the professional market, whereas our institution primarily focuses on their training and the education process. That is something we aim to change in the near future.

What role does research play in the university?

We have a very strong focus on research. For example, research in the field receives the largest amount of funding from our budget. The budget is primarily focused on providing funding opportunities for our students. At the same time, we also develop co-research programs with other institutions such as Banco de la República and Colciencias. In addition, we facilitate professors' mobility through several initiatives in order to boost know-how transfer. Also, we sponsor many events at the national level in the cultural, scientific, and educational fields.

How many scholarships did UNAL grant its students in 2012?

At the post-graduate level, we awarded 250 scholarships for MA and PhD students to support their studies. This line of scholarships can be renewed every year. We also have a scholarship program for assistant professors, as well as to cover studying material costs and fees.

How many foreign students does UNAL currently have, and how are your exchange programs evolving?

Over the last two years, Colombia in general, and our university in particular, has seen an increase in the number of international students. For example, we receive an average of 100 students from abroad each semester. They come from Mexico, Germany, Norway, Spain, Argentina, and France, among other countries. However, in the last few years, we have also seen a very important increase in the number of local students going abroad, and we are sending an average of 170 students to other countries each semester. These are figures from our undergraduate programs. In terms of post-graduate studies, we receive an average of 50 students per semester.

How significant are international partnerships with other universities for UNAL?

We have a very large network of agreements with other institutions at the international level from many countries. For example, we have very strong ties with Latin American institutions, because we believe that it is very important to boost know-how transfer through student- and professor-exchange programs. In this regard, we have agreements with important Latin American institutions such as USP from Brazil, UBA from Argentina, and UNAM from Mexico. At the same time, we have partnership agreements with many universities in Europe, such as Universidad de Valencia and Universidad Complutense de Madrid, as well as several polytechnic institutions in France and Italy.

© The Business Year - February 2013