TRUE TO ROOT AND FORM

Colombia 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Santiago José Castro Agudelo, Rector of Universidad La Gran Colombia, on providing first-rate affordable education, constantly innovating whilst remaining true to one's values, and changing Colombia's risk-adverse culture.

Santiago José Castro Agudelo
BIOGRAPHY
Santiago José Castro Agudelo is a political scientist and historian. He holds a master’s degree in political studies and completed an executive MBA. He has been a director and professor at several universities, teaching undergraduate courses on political parties, constitution, theory of democracy, and the history of Colombia and Latin America. In July 2017, he became the youngest director of a university in Colombia.

What have been some of the university's main accomplishments in the past decade?

When I was appointed rector, I was only 32, so what we have been doing is innovation and renovation. This means making sure that all the administrative procedures are focused on academic excellence, are flexible enough to allow students to get answers in an efficient way, and that all of our collaborators, teachers, and administrative and general staff are always working to better our students and teachers. This is one of the things I have been focused on. But, we have also been working toward new academic programs at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, and we are waiting for a positive answer from the Ministry of Education because we are looking forward to having our first 100% online programs, in accounting, business administration, and economics. We have 15,000 students now and have formal academic programs in Bogotá and Armenia, in the department of Quindío, and are now building a new campus in Medellín, which we hope to continue to grow.

What are competitive advantages make you stand out within the sector?

First, we have a long tradition. This university was founded back in 1951. We have been able to continue to be a popular university, so we keep tuition prices very low so that none of our undergraduate programs are more than six-seven monthly minimum wages per semester. Good-quality higher education need not be tremendously expensive. We are competitive in three areas. First, we only charge what we have to charge since we are a non-profit institution. This makes us very competitive. Second, we are flexible. Students get answers to their questions, to their issues, and to their problems quickly. Third, we have a new team of collaborators working toward the creation of new and better academic programs at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In short, we are changing the DNA of a traditional university like ours while still being faithful to our founding principles. We are an expanding university, a Catholic university, a Bolivarian university, and a university of solidarity; in short, a popular university. But we are flexible and that makes us competitive.

Does the university work with the public or private sector to help graduates find employment?

One of the things we are working toward now is to strengthen the relation between the state, the private sector, and universities. We have a company incubator that we finance and hope our students will think about entrepreneurship programs, what they want to do, and the companies they want to create. From there, we hope to help them get financing and help them properly structure their project. There are many things the state and private sector are not doing properly. It is a path—an innovative path—that is very hard. We have a social and political culture in Colombia that is against failure, and thus, too often, against innovation. To change that is the huge challenge we now face. In fact, the path to innovation with our talent innovation center incubator hopes to give people an alternative. Once they have a job, our employees and the future professionals from this university need to look far into the future in that job to change things and do things in a different way, to innovate and transform the companies they work in. We are doing a good job of getting them there.

What do you want to achieve this year?

I hope to open at least six or seven new undergraduate program, two new post-graduate programs, and our first three online undergraduate programs, through which we want to reach the entire country. I also hope to make sure we continue this innovative process by hiring a new generation of younger people. Finally, I hope to finish our new campus in Medellín.