Ecuador 2013 | TELECOMS & IT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to René Ramírez Gallegos, National Secretary of the National Secretariat of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (SENESCYT), on the development of the country, international students, and the Yachay project.

René Ramírez Gallegos
René Ramírez Gallegos graduated from Universidad San Francisco de Quito in 1997 in Economics and Finance, before going to the University of Michigan to study Quantitative Methods. He later went on to study for his Master’s degree in Government and Public Politics, as well as the Economics of Development. In his professional career, Ramírez has held various positions in SIISE, CISMIL, CONAM, and the SENPLADES before joining SENESCYT in 2011.

How is the National Secretary of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (SENESCYT) contributing to the development of the country?

SENESCYT is putting a great emphasis on higher education, technology, science, and innovation in order to contribute to the change in the economic axis of the Ecuadorean economy toward more knowledge and creativity; thus, contributing to the process of building a knowledge-based society. In this context, we have evaluated the quality of the higher education sector through a very detailed process that led to the closure of 14 institutions in our country. Such measures were much needed in order to confront the commodification process that the Ecuadorean higher education system underwent in previous years. The main reason for their closure was the lack of quality standards. This process, coordinated and funded by the Ecuadorean state, also led around 40,000 students from these institutions to look for another university, which resulted in an improvement in the education process. In addition, these students went through a quality control process in order to assess whether the level of knowledge they had corresponded with reality. Overall, 87% of those students from institutions that had to close successfully continued their education at other centers, which in general terms represents a success, despite the fact that 98% of the students were offered an alternative to continue their studies. Additionally, we set up a national admission and leveling system for prospective higher education students, which broke with past admission trends on social features. Also, we have strengthened the access to scholarship and financial tools available to students. In 2012, over 8,000 students received some form of financial support. Overall, we can see a very positive picture, because we have seen a 50% increase in terms of access to the higher education system by lower income and minority students. Today, Ecuador has a higher rate of low income and minority group students in the higher education system compared to the rest of the region, at 27%. In 2012, we also saw the number of researchers triple. In general terms, the current administration is investing large amounts of money in the higher education sector, and in the scholarships segment alone, we are talking about an average of around $550 million worth of investment. This is very attractive to universities.

What are the main destination countries for the students who enjoy these scholarships?

Many of them are in the EU and the US; however, Australia, South America, and some Asian countries are also destinations for Ecuadorean students. Overall, 60% of our students go to Europe. In addition, around 1,000 teachers from primary and secondary schools have enjoyed scholarships to travel abroad and improve, among other things, their English level. Finally, we encourage high-level researchers from other countries to come to Ecuador through the Prometheus program, and we provide financial and bureaucratic support to institutions. Ecuador is investing 1.83% of GDP in higher education, representing an increase of 1.11 percentage points over the last six years. It is the Latin American country that invests the most in this sector.

What are some of your future plans in the education field?

We will start providing financial support based on quality, efficiency, and excellence in order to contribute to the further development of the sector in terms of quality. By the end of 2013, we will also revise the license granting process for undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Those students that do not pass the test will be eliminated. The idea is to move toward a higher education system in which universities and programs aim at the generation of knowledge. In this way, we are implementing some reforms for the academic regime, and providing some incentives through resources assignment. We also plan an investment of around $308 million in technical programs, as they are the future of our country, and we need to improve the level and number of annual graduates. We also plan a large investment for Yachay, the first planned city of knowledge in Latin America, which provides a friendly ecosystem within the technology and innovation fields geared at attracting foreign investment. For example, several international, and over 50 national companies have already shown their interest in establishing operations in this area of around 4,500 hectares.

“ Yachay sums up Ecuador's identity and will lay the foundations for the country's future development. "

Could you tell us a bit more about the ambitious Yachay project?

The Yachay project combines the public and private sector, higher education institutions, innovation, technology, and R&D. It has 82 heritage areas, and we are in the process of recovering this particular area; the campus will be one of the first elements, along with laboratories, and we plan to invest around $220 million in this project and $1 billion at the initial stage, which involves the building of the university, the public research institutes, and the residential neighborhoods. The construction work for these elements will start during 2H2013. Overall, it is a unique area in the entire Latin American region, and we aim for it to become a true knowledge hub with several clusters from among strategic sectors of the national economy. It is difficult to give a time schedule for the project; however, we expect to have the basics constructed by the end of the current administrative term. The university we envision in this technological and innovative city will be very much focused on technology, science, and innovation. For example, we plan to have one of the largest computer centers in the world as part of providing companies based in Yachay with the necessary services for their operations and development. Yachay sums up Ecuador's identity, knowledge and learning, and we are sure it will lay the foundations for the country's future development. This smart city will also comply with international environmental commitments in terms of carbon emissions. It should be emphasized that Yachay is envisaged to be a knowledge city oriented to the development of scientific innovation not only for the benefit Ecuador, but also the wider Latin American region. In this way, Yachay, being conceptualized as a Special Zone of Economic Development, offers some specific incentives.

What are the main challenges for the IT sector over the medium term?

We need to encourage both the private sector to boost research and innovation expenditure and the higher education institutions to look for greater levels of excellence and strengthen quality standards and processes. We need to do so by increasing expenditure in research, and by articulating with the private sector. For this purpose, it is necessary to move forward in terms of the national science, technology, and innovation code, which will provide the right regulatory framework for the industry to further develop, and to have a major dialog between academia and research institutes.