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Colombia 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

A new law reinstates Colombian history courses for the first time in 23 years as part of the government's push to foster a more inclusive national identity.

Not for nothing did former President Santos name education, peace, and equity the three pillars of his 2014-2018 Todos por un nuevo país (Everyone for a New Country) National Development Plan. More than the glue that holds societies together, education is also the mortar that builds them. As Colombia transitions to peace, a series of impressive reforms, spending programs, and tertiary institutional improvements are underway to streamline and internationalize its education sector to ensure Colombians of every region, race, and background have the tools they need to prosper in the 21st century.

In December 2017 Congress passed a law reintroducing history classes for the first time in 23 years. Designed to help build a national identity that celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity, promotes critical thinking, and fashions a historical memory that contributes to peace and reconciliation, the law is huge step in the right direction. As Santos put it, only by giving students a critical understanding of the cultural, geographic, and political context that led to Colombia's violent past can citizens be capable of transforming the present and future be forged. The Ministry of Education and its specially created Consultative Commission will integrate Colombian history into the broader social science curriculum by the end of 2019.
2018 also got off to a good start on a more material level. In January the ministry announced that 30,600 new classrooms would be built by the end of 2018, the largest annual increase in the country's history. Part and parcel of Santos' 2014 National Education Infrastructure Plan, the expansion will cover 60% of the country's current deficit. There has also been progress at the tertiary level. In April the first stone was laid for the Tumaco campus of the National University, an ambitious project to bring high-quality higher education to the youth of Colombia's southern Pacific regions (Nariño in particular). When finished in 2019, the first stage will include an auditorium, classrooms, laboratories, a library, and cafeteria, and educate 300 pupils per year. At a cost of COP157 billion, within a decade it will have the capacity to teach 5,000 pupils per year in 55 undergraduate majors.
Like many countries across Latin America and the developing world, Colombia has struggled with “massification” over the past 30 years, the process in which massive increases in demand for higher education and enrollment outpace the quality of supply. More than quadrupling its university population since 1992, 50% of Colombian youth now enroll in higher education. But the offerings vary widely. Though Colombia has excellent research universities at the very top end—it ranked third in Latin America behind Brazil (13) and Chile (6), with four of the region's 25 best universities—and its research is particularly strong in physics and astronomy, further down the standards fall rather markedly.
Part of this is because of funding imbalances. Under the current system established in 1992, 48% of all funding goes to just three out of 32 public universities. On top of that, 20 out of 39 public technical institutes receive no regular subsidies. But it is also a question of perceptions. When Santos first tried to introduce for-profit tertiary education as part of his broader reform package, a huge student backlash—particularly from the prestigious bastion of far-left radicalism that is the Universidad Nacional—forced the government to back down.
Despite this, alternative tertiary education options such as Uniminuto have stepped in to fill the gap. Possibly the only university in the world named after a television program, as one analyst noted, Uniminuto was founded by the popular Catholic priest Rafael García Herreros and now serves 120,000 students across branches in 85 cities through distance learning, evening, and online courses catered to the job market. With low-cost tuition and support from organizations such as the Catholic Church and the World Bank, Uniminuto is expanding every year and opened a new campus in Pereira (Antioquia) in the first trimester of 2018.
In addition to its efforts to streamline the country's system of qualifications, create new pathways to university, and improve the status of technical education, the government is also pushing for greater internationalization and bilingualism. Though 46% of all university papers were internationally coauthored between 2011-2015, the vast majority of academics are unable to write in English. As part of Santos' plan to make Colombia the best-educated country in Latin America by 2025, the Ministry of Education is pushing bilingualism hard, adding 1,400 bilingual English instructors in secondary schools since 2015 alone.