STRIKING A DEAL

Colombia 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: EDUCATION INVESTMENT

Teachers went on strike for the second time in two years in May 2017, fighting for increased wages, improved infrastructure, and more teacher development programs. Will the government's offer be more broken promises or will Colombia write a new chapter for the textbooks?

On May 11, 2017, 350,000 Colombian teachers from the powerful Colombian Federation of Education Workers (FECODE) went on strike to ask for better working conditions. All over the nation, but mainly in Bogotá, daily-held marches frequently blocked roads and paralyzed the education system. Teachers were asking for higher wages as their salaries reached a minimum of COP1.8 million (USD610) per month—an amount they consider inadequate and a poor incentive for young talents to become teachers. Strikers also requested efforts to hire more teachers and provide more classroom space. They claim they can have as many as 50 students in a class and not enough room for full class days. Other demands included food programs, better transportation, and technology access in schools.

The FECODE union finally agreed on June 16, after 37 days of strike, to form a deal with Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas. The deal will offer progressive bonus payments and stronger participation from unions. Concerning general educational demands, the government will make available early education programs, 7,000 scholarships for master's degrees in teaching, and plans to improve foreign language training programs. On top of that, the government promised to modernize infrastructure and announced that it has already delivered 120,000 tablets to familiarize underprivileged children with technology.

This year's protests began in response to the government's lack of action following a previous strike in 2015, fighting the absence of accountability to meet their earlier demands. In 2015, teachers organized to fight for better wages, healthcare, and evaluation measures. FECODE accepted the government's offer of a 12% wage increase over four years and less stringent evaluation measures. However, with little improvement in pay, initial negotiations turned into general strike when the Ministry of Education declared it did not have enough funds to deliver on the previous agreement.

While the government claims there is not enough funding, it simultaneously names education as a top development focus. President Manuel Santos' National Development Plan for 2014-2018 states that education, alongside peace and equity, is one of the country's priorities. In 2015, he announced an ambitious project for Colombia to be the most educated country in Latin America by 2025. Furthermore, the revised peace deal signed on the November 24, 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also includes education investment promises in rural areas, though teachers would argue limited fulfilment of these promises. In February 2016, former US President Obama pledged to give more than USD450 million to help Colombia build a unified and prosperous nation. However, the election of President Trump and his planned reduction of international development funding is endangering this promise.

The OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study provides a ranking of countries based on students' performance in mathematics, science, and reading. Historically, Colombia was among the worst performers. And though still considered below the Latin America average, Colombia gained 19 positions in 2015's ranking. In order to keep improving education by international standards, the government is considering regulating and internationalizing its universities. In Colombia, 50% of young people now attend university, a rate that has increased dramatically over the past 30 years and provided the catalyst for the creation of many new entities. Along with 82 universities, the current system also comprises “university institutions,” and “technological institutions” with a large diversity in terms of educational quality, access, and infrastructures.
Though the strike ended with a favorable agreement for teachers, with the Ministry of Education's poor track record of delivering on commitments and uncertain foreign development funding, Colombia's teachers are not celebrating a victory quite yet. Implementation of reforms and allocation of promised funding—and most importantly, the educational outcomes for students—remain to be seen.