Will Peru’s higher education laws and nascent SUNEDU save the country’s dismal higher education sector, or are these reforms too little too late?
Education is almost by consensus the most important factor when it comes to ameliorating inequality, the endemic disease of contemporary Latin America. To what extent does poor higher education preclude young, disadvantaged segments from breaking the vicious cycle? How can education achieve what economic growth does not seem to be achieving, namely sustainable development? The case of the Higher Education reform (HER) in Peru is a good example that sheds light on a pressing issue that indeed, affects the entire region.
‘Medio pelo’ is a common colloquial term to refer to the many poor quality universities (generally private ones) across Peru that act as degree factories churning out certificates in exchange for ever-increasing fees and no real learning or professional skills to compete in the labour market.
Higher education and youth unemployment: Two sides of the same coin
The UNESCO 1995 report for higher education development policy points to several trends that explain the university proliferation and increased enrollment, namely: demographic expansion, increase of youth enrollment aspirations, awareness of the development-higher education relationship, political and socioeconomic willingness to overcome non-democratic conditions (i.e. poverty), among others. Proliferation has been remarkable in the last 20 years with a staggering 360% growth rate for private universities and 28% for public ones. As of now, only about half of these are fully accredited.
By and large, the laissez-faire approach that the Peruvian government adopted is largely to blame for the extreme heterogeneity (in terms of courses offered, quality benchmarks and job prospects) within the Peruvian higher education system, in which no definite graduate profile is discernible, let alone quantifiable. In a context where market forces rule and institutions have always regulated themselves rather ineffectively, government intervention is a monumental task; even if only for a preliminary framework such as the Higher Education Reform – HER.
To be sure, the increased capacity in higher education has catered for many socioeconomic categories and multidisciplinary preferences. However, this does not solve the question of education democratisation either, since its real answer lies at the lower end of the income distribution, with two necessary guarantees: access and quality, neither of which has been provided by the status quo.
The enormous disparity between graduate quantity and quality permeates through the labour market and possibly the most alarming consequence is the economy’s inability to absorb this massive labour supply.
Indeed, youth unemployment is a big issue across the region with around 40% of all unemployed recent graduates. Furthermore,six out of ten jobs are in the informal sector. If we add the decelerating growth rates, then we have an outlook that dangerously resembles stagnation – or at least the beginning of it.
With vice-chancellors and rectors making astronomical monthly figures, oftentimes dodgy connections and even some violent protests on campuses nationwide, it is no surprise that the ministry of education believed a statutory framework was crucial. The reform; however, was met with controversy over the creation of a superintendency (SUNEDU) with capabilities for regulation, monitoring and quality control; and a general restructuring of both structure and substance in the current HE system.
Peru’s minimal – if at all existent – university spending in research and innovation further compounds these issues, which subsequently precludes its integration with the private and public sectors, think tanks, and other research institutions. Hence, the Science Citation Index shows Peru among the bottom performers in R&I production with Chile and Brazil leading in Latin America. Peru’s sad state of affairs is also confirmed by university rankings: only three Peruvian institutions feature among the Top 100 regional universities in this year’s QS Latin American University Rankings.
Reforming the System: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
In 2012, prior to HER, four of every ten graduates were under-employed. This was, among other factors, a result of medio pelo universities and a significant percentage of professionals being over-qualified and underpaid in ill-fitting jobs. When the University Law (UL) was approved (the first phase of HER), there were many attempts to declare it unconstitutional, citing violation of university autonomy. Nevertheless, Education Minister, Jaime Saavedra did not seem to worry too much about political pressure.
Indeed, scrutiny and political opposition were relentless; which is no surprise given that SUNEDU was granted capacities such as: imposing sanctions, control over the creation of new universities, and the regulation of use of public resources in a country where higher education is a very profitable business and an excellent vessel for influence peddling by political parties, especially during election times. Not illegal yet not exactly ideal either.
Moreover,, a few of the changes enacted by the reform were: 1) monitor accreditation processes and if needed, sanction and/or remove their license, 2) at least 25% of teaching staff must be full-time and all should possess a postgraduate degree in 5-years time, 3) hire teachers-researchers to promote innovation and quality in research, 4) Teachers over 70 years old will have to retire, 5) rectors and upper management will have to change periodically, 6) undergraduates will not automatically obtain a bachelor’s degree upon completion but rather submit a thesis and a second language test as well.
When juxtaposed to the previous status quo, it is evident how state intervention can be resented, especially by vested political and financial interests in upper-management positions.
Indeed, the current system’s state of deep crisis forces both the incumbent government and universities alike to legitimise the need for reform. In order words, this is not a question of whether change is needed, but rather who will be the one ultimately driving it, and to what extent can clashing interests be reconciled in a way that does not abuse legislation and reform mechanisms; neither by the government of the day nor by private interests.
The next steps…
An obvious conclusion thus far is that given the lack of harmonisation, communication and consistency in Peru’s HE, there is in fact no actual system. As such, the reform attempts to fulfil two crucial tasks: restructuring the current, fractured landscape as well as creating (and managing) a viable system.
Furthermore, a third policy layer is needed beyond the existing HER. For instance, on the government’s side, a policy framework is needed that establishes links between the skills that employers require and those that final year students possess. In this sense practical education, labour-market information, and training are vital for they aid the smooth assimilation of recent graduates into the job market assimilate.
Similarly, in the private sector it is vital to incentivise firms to actively engage with students in a way that allows them to transition into the working world even before graduation. Needless to say, the quality of the education received acts as a seal of guarantee for firms – right now investing in Peru’s graduates remains risky.
In other words, the solution lies in cooperation and coordination by public-private partnerships for both better education and lower youth unemployment. Evidently the keyword here being coordination, which resonates with deeper, more complex questions regarding effective governance, political will and a genuine commitment to future generations.