A DEGREE OF WISDOM

Colombia 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks with Luis H. Pérez, President of Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, on Colombia's expanding higher education offering, meeting international standards, and extending access to the deserving.

Luis H. Pérez
BIOGRAPHY
Luis H. Pérez studied Dentistry and Psychology at the Universidad Nacional. He holds a Masters degree in Education from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Educational Administration from Northwestern University. He was Director of the Department of Psychology, Dean of Education and Dean of Students of Universidad del Valle. He is currently Rector of Universidad Autónoma de Occidente.

What is Colombia's potential to become a global educational powerhouse?

Over the past two decades, higher education has received an important boost from the Colombian government in terms of improving program quality. As a consequence of this policy, Colombian universities have a solid reputation at the national and international level. Secondly, the student population has increased significantly in the same period and, thirdly, research activities have been consolidated at the most advanced universities. However, work needs to be done in order to improve the quality of regional and local universities not yet benefiting from the national policies. The fact is that only 28 higher education institutions in Colombia out of 286, including Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, have been accredited for high quality standards by the National Ministry of Education.

In which fields does Colombia excel in higher education?

Since Colombia is a country rich in biodiversity, there has been an urgent need for environmental programs at many universities. Our university, for example, has an undergraduate program and a Master's degree program in Environmental Management. We also offer a course on culture and biology of environmental diversity, jointly with an American university, which is popular with many American students. At the same time, the University is doing significant work on renewable energy in association with national energy providers. This is only an example of the many projects that are now in progress at our university and at certain others in Colombia, in the promising field of environment and sustainable development.

How would you evaluate the measures implemented by the government to broaden access to higher education for students of limited economic means?

Colombia has taken crucial decisions toward the democratization of higher education over the past decade. As a result, 13% of students at the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente have benefited every semester from the so-called budget quotas, reflected in subsidies and credit lines for students of low-income families, belonging to levels one and two of the Colombian socio-economic scale. In this way, many academically able students from poor families have the chance to study at high quality universities. In this setup, universities assume up to 25%, while the government provides 75% of the total value of these credits.

What are the goals of universities belonging to the Mutis network?

We are convinced that integration with other universities to combine strengths fosters the development of projects of high social impact. Given that we live in a globalized world, it is necessary to adopt identical operating standards and parameters and pursue strategic alliances with other universities around the world that will contribute to the achievement of our own goals and those of the entire educational system in Colombia. A clear example of the value of the network is design and development of a doctoral program in engineering by the Red Universitaria Mutis, a goal that has been difficult to achieve by each of the universities that are members of this network.

What are the competitive advantages of your Campus for students?

Our campus represents the essence of a high quality educational institution in Colombia. We try to provide the best quality of life for our students, since we know that the better the student feels, the better they perform in their studies. Our campus offers a wide spectrum of activities related to welfare such as a leadership school, a social facilitators' school, sports, and cultural facilities.