MARITZA RONDÓN

Colombia 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Maritza Rondón, Rector of the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia, about the values of the institution, remote learning, and gender equality.

What are the principles and values of the university?

We are an institution that forms part of the social and solidarity-based economy. Therefore, all our principles are grounded in solidarity. Our mission to democratize education must be reflected in the development of regions and in the betterment of the quality of life of our alumni. We have a multi-campus system spread across 16 cities. All of our principles and values underpin the work of the university. What is more, our students come from over 900 cities, more than 80% of country. This means they are able to appreciate the quality and relevance of the wide-ranging coverage that the university offers to the less privileged populations of Colombia. In many cases, these are populations with specific socioeconomic, political, and social issues. Our values of inclusion, quality, and coverage have the power to strengthen our entire system.

What has the university's experience been like with remote learning? How have digital media and distance learning made it possible for the university to reach rural or geographically remote areas?

Inclusion is a key strategic element. The switch to remote learning and then to hybrid was made possible thanks to 10 years of digital transformation research and investment at the Cooperative University of Colombia. In the past few years alone, we have invested more than USD60 million in technology and digital competency development for all our employees. Some years ago, we began building a vision for the future of the university, preparing for a moment like this without imaging that we would face it so soon. However, we had no idea it would come about so quickly. This has been made possible thanks to all the work carried out over the course of the last decade. Therefore, with the participation of teachers, we were able to implement a hybrid model of learning for the benefit of students and families. The university began offering zero-interest financial plans for the payment of full tuition, ranging from six to 10 months in conjunction with our cooperative bank COMUNA, and we opened free enrollment. In 2021, we have continued to offer all students a 10% discount on tuition. We also started up several mentoring programs, delivered almost 2,000 computers to students and administrative staff, and organized donation campaigns in order to raise funds for connectivity and travel grants for national and international students.

What has been achieved in terms of gender equality?

We are the only university in the country with the EQUIPARES seal. This prestigious accolade is awarded to institutions that are able to demonstrate that they advocate for gender equality. It is presented on behalf of Office of the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia, the Ministry of Labor, and the United Nations Development Program. We were awarded the first seal in the city of Cali. We have been working to support the inclusion vulnerable populations for some years now. The gender and sexual diversity in the university community is highly respected. It is not a case of simply having policies or processes in place, but of generating a culture. In addition, this year we will put ourselves forward for the gold seal in order to demonstrate to the community just how far we have come in terms of our gender equality policy.

What lessons from your time as Quality Director of the Ministry of Education have been useful during your tenure?

It was two years of hard work and non-stop learning. I have been in higher education for 33 years, and by the time I came to join the Quality Directorate, I had been working at a university for 18 years. When you reach a government position where you are able see the diversity of the institutions, the opportunities, and the needs, and you have the opportunity to implement a public policy on learning, you play a part in improving it. I am fortunate to have come from a position in which I was aware of policy of the country because I implemented it, and I had the chance to build a rapport with some universities. Then, I moved on to a multi-campus university with a presence across multiple regions of Colombia and with students from more than 900 cities. It was a great opportunity for me. When you are aware of the reality of the situation, you better understand the needs of others. That has been my greatest lesson.

What are you doing in terms of environment, environmental sustainability, and environmental protection?

We have our own environmental management system and a program we call Reduce Your Footprint. This program, which we have been promoting for six years, includes information on how to save energy, make efficient use of energy, responsible waste management, efficient use of water at the university, and our purchases. We are always on the lookout for strategic allies that are able to provide us with certified eco-friendly foods. Obviously, we use the “environmentalization” concept. This essentially involves conveying the importance of managing resources, taking care of the environment, generating campaigns, taking proper care of waste, and recycling in the classroom. We want to make sure students are aware of environmental protection and that it generates a domino effect so that when they get home, they, in turn, can teach their families. In 2020, we saw a 57% reduction in energy consumption across all campuses and a 63% fall in water consumption. At the Cooperative University of Colombia, we have already reduced the use of paper by 70%.

How does the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia work with teachers to support them in the digital transformation?

We have 3,000 teachers and about 38,000 students. We have been building a collaborative working network called Rizoma, which enables teachers to share experiences and ideas for about six years now. Before the pandemic, we had brought about 1,200 teachers together online, and this has now risen to 2,200. In addition, Microsoft named us among the 10 universities that most use its resources in Latin America. We were the first in Colombia.

How do you see the development of the higher education system in Colombia? How would you like it to develop?

One of the important things to highlight about the higher education system in Colombia is that we have all come together. The Padrino Brown Plan, which was headed up the Ministry of Education, brought together over 34 universities and higher education institutions to support more than 180 people in need. The opportunities are continuing to grow, and awareness is increasing; however, education remains key to reducing poverty. It is the fundamental basis for social transformation and mobility. The pandemic has given students the power to decide what they want to learn and how they want to go about it. For this reason, the Cooperative University of Colombia fast tracked a project called Ligros that had been in the works for a few years. This decision was made based on the fact that the pandemic has forced us to educate students online. We must continue to learn that technologies are a key factor in learning. Likewise, the system must become resilient and flexible. I believe it must adapt and innovate.