How would you describe the current education sector in Costa Rica?
SILVIA CASTRO There are challenges on both the quantity and quality side of our human capital. From the access side, as well as from a fair part of the quality issue, education institutions have a problem with regulatory frameworks of higher education in addition to technical degrees. The government has decided to only recognize technical education with two-year programs. Typically, in Europe for example, there are different definitions of technical education and higher education, depending on how many years of study one has completed. The new regulation restricts the technical education offerings. Instead of encouraging more technical education programs, the government is hindering them. There is an ideological struggle in Costa Rica over whether education should be only public or a mix of private and public. The regulations intend to restrict the offerings from the private sector so as not to encourage growth there. That is one way to reduce access in technical education. In higher education, we have one of the most bureaucratic institutions in the country. We have explored technical education in a big way, creating programs that are recognized by employers, though not the government. Our students and their employers value our work. We have done similar things for other degrees, including online certifications that do not have government approval. Quality and access are both influenced by regulatory limitations.
ALBERTO SALOM The strength of education in Costa Rica started in the 19th century; Costa Rican liberals declared primary education as free and compulsory, and this resulted in generations of young people being educated. The University of Costa Rica (UCR) was established in 1942-1943, and in 1973, two more public universities followed: the Costa Rican Institute of Technology (ITCR) and UNA. Later came National Distance Education University (UNED) and, more recently, the National Technical University. In 1973, private higher education also began to appear gradually, and easy mechanisms were generated to grant permits so that private education centers could function; subsequently, 54 private universities in the country were formed. Today, public higher education continues to be qualitatively better than private education. In the higher education system, there is what is called academic training, which is made up of teaching, research, and extension. In UNA, we talk about a fourth aspect: production. UNA was born amidst a need to take charge of all those students who graduated from high school but could not gain entry into UCR. UNA opened its doors to them via two methods: scholarships and a propaedeutic system, which functioned as a leveling system to take charge of that university population. We have been successful, with a graduation rate of about 94%. Our students enter the labor markets with success, and the percentage of students who graduate from UNA and remain unemployed is low.
What is the role of the private sector to supply the workforce with the necessary skills?
SC In the US, there is a census of how many people are required in each field, what skills they need, salaries, and so forth. That does not exist here, however. Such a study needs to be led by a ministry or someone with the budget and data to generate the information. With this, people would know what they should be studying. This census information would also benefit institutions, which now have to go through extreme market research to try to figure out what companies need. The information is partial. The specifics and criteria within fields such as software programming, for example, have not been defined, so there is no consensus as to what everybody needs yet.
What initiatives do you have with the private sector to place your students in workplaces?
AS We have agreements whereby our students work in the public or private companies with which we collaborate, though we also do this via what we call a supervised professional service, which is a space that occurs towards the end of a student's career. We have an active student mobility policy through agreements with public and private universities abroad, mainly Central America, the Caribbean, and Latin America, though we have also exchange agreements with universities in Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the US. Recently, we established agreements with South Korea, China, and the UAE.