THE LEARNING PROCESS

Ecuador 2012 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Ecuador's rural population has gained greater access to free education thanks to constitutional reforms. Meanwhile, universities race to become research centers and platforms for international exchange.

Throughout modern history, young people in Ecuador have overcome many obstacles to receive an education in a country with a large rural base. Since President Correa's government has been in power, dramatic changes have revolutionized the education sector and encouraged even more young people to reach higher levels of education. However, significant challenges remain if Ecuador is to develop an education system on par with international standards. To raise the quality level of schools nationwide, the Correa administration has designed laws, budgets, and plans to support institutions as they evolve to a higher level. By 2015, the President aims to upgrade state schools to match the quality of the private one his own children attend.

Since coming into office in January 2007, the Correa administration has spent approximately $280 million on the refurbishment and construction of schools. Since 2009, the President's focus has been not on spending more, but on watching the system more closely. To this end, teachers are being tested more frequently, and public institutions must adhere to new transparency laws, especially in terms of budget allocation. Meanwhile, the government has demonstrated its interest in devising a standard, minimum curriculum. At present, students must receive at least nine years of basic education, but this rule has proven difficult to enforce. Of children aged nine to 15 years old in rural areas, only 10% were attending school in 2011. However, 76% of children in this age group are educated until sixth grade. Approximately 90% of Ecuadorean people are literate. Currently, 65% of education in Ecuador is public, while 35% is private. The private sector is very competitive, with universities founded on the premise that students should be well educated to meet the challenges of emerging global trends. Public universities are also specializing in technology, science, and business in order to provide curricula that rival the world's best.


HIGHER EDUCATION

Of the over 50 universities in Ecuador, many offer scholarships and study abroad opportunities, demanding that their students are at least proficient in English and Spanish, but preferably fluent in both. Private schools offer the most prestigious education, boasting international faculty members and diverse student bodies. Of the 35% of schools that are privately funded, many award scholarships to students from all social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Meanwhile, public institutes are undergoing a massive restructuring as they shift their focus to provide a wide range of courses and majors, as well as top-notch faculty and facilities.

One of the first private research institutes in Latin America, Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) prides itself on its wide range of available majors and close attention to the sciences. As part of its curriculum, many students study abroad in countries in Europe or in the US, while an even greater number come to Ecuador to study at USFQ. Santiago Gangotena, Chancellor of USFQ, told TBY that the school “receives about 1,000 students every year from 38 different countries. This also gives our students opportunities to study abroad with scholarships. We have about 250 students studying abroad at any given time with a scholarship for a semester or a year." This initiative has attracted more students than the school has capacity to handle. Designed to enroll 2,500 students, USFQ expanded its facilities and now educates approximately 5,500. To meet demand, new buildings and a medical research center will be erected by 2014.

Founded in 1997, the Universidad Del Pacífico is also pioneering education in Ecuador, focused on training young entrepreneurs to create their own jobs rather than become frustrated by limited job prospects. This approach has attracted the attentions of over 1,000 students who are enrolled at three campuses. One of the school's most recent programs is that of airport management, a field that the rector sees as crucial to the growth of Ecuador's transportation system and job creation. “I have a lot of expectations for airport management," Sonia Roca, Rector of Universidad Del Pacífico, stressed to TBY. “We have received positive feedback from young people regarding this program. Quito is about to get a new airport, and it is important that the country has people capable of administrating the airport."

The largest and oldest university in the country, Universidad Central de Ecuador (UCE) will open its first full-time PhD research center in 2012. For the past five years, the university has seen increased demand; to respond to the needs of its 50,000 students, the school is constantly expanding and evolving. In the 300 years since its establishment, the university has built a solid faculty and enrollment base, but strives for the constant improvement of its staff and student body. In doing so, the administration has signed agreements with over 200 other universities worldwide. “We need to further boost students' and teaching staff mobility through these agreements, because that would enable us to improve quality standards at all the levels," Edgar Samaniego, Rector of the Universidad Central del Ecuador, told TBY. “Our priority for the near future is to boost agreements within the scientific and technological areas."

CHALLENGES

Despite the growing number of high-quality universities in both the public and private sphere, many students still struggle to gain access to higher education. Although a problem that can be localized to rural areas of the country, support for this segment of the population has come slowly.

The main challenges rural Ecuadorean children face stem from family financial issues, and many cannot afford to pay for transportation to and from school or the associated fees of education, such as supplies and textbooks. Furthermore, farming communities or other laborers tend to value their children's help around the house or family farm more than a full-time education.

This could be a result of the fact that primary and secondary public schools are believed to be very low in quality, and the prospects for finding employment are often unsatisfactory after graduation. However, increased government support since the 1980s is steadily reversing this trend. Currently, 8% of government expenditure is geared toward education, which is equal to 1% of the country's GDP. Although the education budget declined in the 2000s, careful planning and targeted goals have driven the new government's policy, and international support from organizations such as UNICEF has also helped Ecuador's educational system along as it evolves. This combination of support—both domestic and international—will play a role in changing the mentality of rural children that forego high school and begin working locally from a young age.

In the coming years, the government's mission is to change the perception that state schools offer low-quality education and few opportunities beyond high school. As soon as more students begin graduating from high school, private universities will be ready with scholarships and competitive programs, and state universities will receive students seeking many options free of change.