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Ecuador: President Vetoes Higher Education Bill

This past January, Webometrics, a Spaniard research group, released its “Webometrics Ranking of World Universities.” The first Ecuadorian university to appear in the ranking was Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral (ESPOL [es]) in position 702 [es]. There are only two Ecuadorian universities ranked among the top 100 in Latin America: ESPOL at number 25 and UTPL (Technical University of Loja) at number 66. This kind of exposure of Ecuadorian higher education has been a concern for many presidents, and the current government is working towards the approval of a new bill which affects higher education in Ecuador.

Litoral Polytechnic School – Guayaquil. Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Guerra Salazar, an industrial engineering student in the ESPOL

The new organic bill for higher education is part of the objectives in the new Ecuadorian Constitution approved by a referendum. The education bill was approved by the national assembly and sent to the president for a final decision. However, President Rafael Correa vetoed the bill and sent it back to the assembly for reconsideration [es] as it did not coincide with the original project. In order to get the bill passed by the national assembly some concessions had to be made, but Correa is now reintroducing the original ideas through amendments. These amendments include that the Secretary of Education would oversee higher education, and that the involvement of students as decision makers in Universities, as part of what is called a “co-government,” would be reduced from 50% to 25%.

The bill will also regulate the operations of all institutions involved in higher education in Ecuador. Many have already been subject to evaluations, but universities do not want to give up the so-called “university autonomy.” Both major organizations of Ecuadorian universities, the Ecuador Association of Universities and Polytechnic Schools (ASUEPE) and the Ecuadorian Corporation of Private Universities (CEUPA), wish they had an organism like the Higher Education Council (CONESUP [es]) to oversee their education centers; therefore, both groups are opposed to the new bill which makes the Secretary of Education the only institution responsible for higher education policies. Furthermore, there are deep disagreements about the bill inside universities and the National Planning and Development Secretariat (SENPLADES), the organism whose main goal is to act as a watchdog for all institutions of higher education in the country.

René Ramírez, SENPLADES’ secretary, was interviewed by El Telégrafo, a major Ecuadorian newspaper, where he summarizes the bill [es]:

Los cambios están canalizados a mejorar el nivel académico de las universidades, el nivel profesional de los docentes y otorgar becas por meritocracia…busca destinar recursos para la investigación en las universidades públicas y privadas…la existencia de docentes a tiempo completo será uno de los requisitos indispensables que deberán cumplir las universidades; además… la mayoría del Consejo Universitario estará en manos de la comunidad académica y no del Estado.

The changes are channeled to improve the academic standards of universities, the professional level of professors and to provide scholarships based on merit … it seeks to allocate resources for research in public and private universities … the employment of full-time teachers will be one of the prerequisites to be met by universities, also … most of the University Council will be held by the academic community and not the state.

But not everyone agrees with the government's suggested amendments. Paula Romo [es] is an assemblywoman for PAIS, the political party of president Correa. She agrees that the bill is a positive step, including the points on the vetoed project, but she also voices concerns about the inequality in the treatment of universities:

En lo que se refiere al mecanismo de designación de autoridades académicas la ley hace una excepción para las universidades militares y las que se han acogido al modus vivendi; estas universidades, en este tema no están obligadas a regirse por la ley, sino por sus propios estatutos. Estas excepciones no son correctas ni justificables en un Estado de Derecho y menos en un Estado Laico.

In regards to the mechanism for the appointment of academic authorities, the bill makes an exception for military universities and those that have benefited of the modus vivendi, these universities, on this topic, are not obliged to abide by the law, but rather by their own statutes. These exceptions are not right nor justifiable under the rule of law and much less under a Secular State.

Students are defending the 50% student participation in co-governments, since the amended bill would diminish their participation. But even students disagree on this issue. Furthermore, the National Federation of Polytechnic Students (FEPON) complains that their proposals were never heard, and they think that the new bill is a regression on students’ rights. The president of the Catholic University Student Federation -Quito (FEUCE-Q) on the other hand, in an interview posted at ecuadorinmediato.com, supports the assignment of funds to research and the new way authorities will be elected according to Correa’s suggestions:

El veto emitido por el Presidente de la República, es sumamente extenso, tiene 98 páginas, trata bastantes aspectos de la Ley, hay algunos que son radiales, hay algunos que en verdad son interesantes, creo que son bastantes positivos y también existen otros en los cuales podemos discrepar con el criterio del Presidente

The veto by the President of the Republic, is very extensive, has 98 pages, deals with many aspects of the law, there are some that are radial, there are some that are really interesting, I think they are quite positive and there are also others in which we disagree with the President's opinion.

In her blog, Gabriela Salazar [es] justifies in some way the need for changes in higher education; she quotes Latitud Central, a newspaper from the Central University, and explains why some professors should resign immediately:

“¡AL FIN CARAJO!” y continúa, “Sí, ése es el grito de cientos de docentes que al fin en esta universidad se van a poner las cosas en orden”…y delira sobre una universidad hundida, de profesores universitarios tramposos que urdían accidentes de tránsito y enfermedades para no asistir, “profesores vagos a los que hay que llamarlos colegas”, en fin, de una universidad donde “se festinó el tiempo y no se hizo NADA”. E insiste así: “¡Ahora, si CARAJO vamos a estudiar!

“FINALLY” and it continues, “Yes, that is the cry of hundreds of professors who think that at last in this university things are going to be in order” … and it raves about a university ruined by cheating educators who made up traffic accidents and diseases to not attend their classes, “lazy professors who we have to call colleagues,” in short, a university where “time was wasted and nothing was done.” And insists, like this: “Now, we are finally going to study!”

In this flow of discrepancies one might come to think that many authorities are against the vetoed project, but Jose Elias in the blog Dialogo con Joselias [es] reports that at least 7 of the highest authorities in Ecuadorian universities met up in Cuenca to analyze the presidential veto. This blogger quotes Edgar Seminario of the Central University:

“No estamos a favor ni en contra del Gobierno, estamos a favor de un cambio radical en algunos aspectos como la importancia de la investigación en los procesos académicos, entre otros beneficios que trae el veto…Somos divergentes con otras opiniones, como la de defender la existencia de una Secretaria Técnica de Educación Superior, que para nosotros significa un cambio sustancial.”

“We are not in favor or against the government, we favor a radical change in some aspects as the importance of research in academic processes, among other benefits the veto presents … We differ with other opinions, such as defending the existence of a Higher Education Technical Secretariat, which for us means a substantial change.

While some Ecuadorians still struggle to reach an agreement on what is good for higher education in their country, others can't even get into university this year. Voces Lojana [es] points out that some 3,502 students are fighting in courts for their right to get into the National University of Loja (UNL [es]), which this year only issued 2,410 spots to fulfill a demand of over 7,000 aspiring students. There is one thing everyone seems to agree on: all Ecuadorians want to improve the quality of their higher education. But before any change happens, first they will have to come to an agreement.

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