SEAT OF LEARNING

Panama 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Gustavo García de Paredes, Rector of the University of Panama, on the role of the university in society, international exchanges, and the future of higher education.

Gustavo García de Paredes
BIOGRAPHY
Gustavo García de Paredes holds a bachelor's and a Doctorate in world history from the Universidad de Madrid, having also completed studies in Brasília and Panama City. He has received a wide range of distinctions and awards in Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Panama. His previous roles have included rector of the Universidad de Panamá, Minister of Education, General Director of the Colón Free Zone, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Panama in Brazil, President of the Union of Latin American Universities, and President of the High Council of Central American Universities (CSUCA), among many others.

How does the University of Panama contribute to Panamanian society?

Our institution is the most prestigious university in the country. Apart from our central campus, we have nine regional centers, three extensions, and 25 annexes, giving us a national presence. We are widely present in areas where there is a high incidence of extreme poverty, as well as in areas of home to indigenous populations, which also tend to be more disadvantaged. Our objective is to help these people become part of the economy. In terms of curricular strengths, our leading degrees are Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine, Agronomy, Law, and Engineering, which is an area we are particularly focused on today.

How is the university contributing to national development?

We continue to make diverse contributions. We develop drugs, cosmetics, and food quality controls. We also have several systems to control air quality, atomic emissions, and seismology through our Institute of Geoscience. We operate the largest dentistry center in the country with the latest advanced technologies, in addition to a veterinary hospital. Additionally, we are implementing a photovoltaic project with a Spanish company that will enable us to generate 40 MW of power. Our current consumption averages at 35 MW, and the surplus 5 MW will be sold to the market, with half of the revenue going to the university. We will be paying 15 cents per kW instead of the 20 cents we are paying today. This will result in an annual saving of $2.7 million, which represents 25% of our current consumption. Another important project is the network of Innovation Centers we are creating in different regions. These are technological centers of innovation and entrepreneurship, and our objective is to provide every local community with the necessary technical resources to launch the projects they need. We are pursuing comprehensive interaction between the university and the community.

How many foreign students does the University of Panama have and how are your exchange programs evolving?

The figures for 2014 have shown a strong increase on the previous academic year. We have a total of 250 agreements, which have allowed scientists mobility, academic exchange initiatives, and the development of an international network. In addition, we have our international degrees. This large number of agreements has been remarkably beneficial for us. For example, we have become licensed, in alliance with the University of Granada, for vaccination against the tórsalo, a type of fly, which causes terrible damage to animals. We have also instituted an expanded system of collaboration between the private sector and the university. These agreements allow students to develop internships in Panamanian firms, with students being evaluated and graded by these companies.

What is your outlook for the higher education system in Panama?

In my opinion, the government has not paid sufficient attention to education in Panama in recent years as the economy is essentially based on services, and politicians give more importance to industry, the banking system, or the flagship registry industry. The academic component of the national economy therefore appears to be a less attractive item on the political agenda. People complain about the level of higher education, but this is not the fault of the institutions themselves. Educational programs are not correctly implemented because governments unfortunately devote less attention to them. This is why we always hear about improvements and progress in education yet never appear to be free of financial woes. Private companies complain that as institutions we fail to prepare students to the level required by a competitive economy. And yet, despite the limitations we have to face, we remain well positioned in comparison to other countries in the region. And at the local level our academic offering is considerable when compared with other Panamanian universities, as we develop degrees such as physics or philosophy, where we have more teachers than students.