Peru is getting its universities in order, passing legislation yesterday that amplifies the state’s role to raise standards in its flagging higher education sector.
Congress voted to create a tougher regulatory body, whose head will be chosen by the Ministry of Education, to clamp down on poor-quality institutions, and resolve disputes over budget misallocation and contentious chancellors.
Academics and student groups said the National Superintendency of University Education’s (SUNEDU) replacement of the independent National Assembly of Rectors (ANR) would imperil universities’ autonomy and stifle freedom of expression.
“We’ve lost a lot of time and the new law is concerned with quality,” said Minister of Education, Daniel Mora, referring to the law’s first debating over two years ago. “A university that wasn’t established with a basic level of quality of international standards will not be able to created. It’s a big step.”
SUNEDU’s main task is the vetting the 62 private and public institutions unaccredited by the state (46 percent of total universities), some of which have poor infrastructure, offer sub par tuition and are fronts for money laundering.
After ex-president Alberto Fujimori kicked away barriers to entry in 1996 to make “university businesses”, profit seeking and weak oversight have seen nebulous institutions spring up campuses.
San Juan Bautista University in North Lima, where future doctors and dentists train in a shopping mall above an amusement arcade, or the Universidad of Jaen, in Cajamara, where students complained of putrid smells from a nearby market disrupting tuition, are recent examples of current lax practice.
Some universities have vowed to contest the ruling, and the ANR declared it ‘unconstitutional’ after an amended version of the bill was passed without further debate.
“They (the government) can say what they want,” said congressmen Alberto Beingolea of the opposition PPC party. “This body will be managed by the government of the day.”
Moving from minerals
President Ollanta Humala has hailed the university law as vital to South America’s sixth-largest economy future development and says it focuses on making students professional, not customers.
“We’re conscious that Peru isn’t going to sustain itself selling minerals,” said Mr Humala referring to Peru’s significant exports of copper, gold, zinc and other minerals.
“Too much private capital in universities led to an imperfect market in university teaching,” said the president.
Despite having the oldest university in the New World –the National University of San Marcos, founded in 1551– Peru’s universities lag in Latin America with only 16 in the top 300, according to the latest QS world rankings. Only three institutions occupy above-average spots at 30th, 57th and 65th.
Public universities are free, though heavily over-subscribed sometimes leading to five-year waits. Unsurprisingly, its 1.6 million students often study private if they can afford it.
A year’s tuition for a three-and-a-half year law degree at the accredited private Catholic University Los Angeles de Chimbote cost 2,820 soles (about $1,000).
SUNEDU’s superseding of ANR, to take effect in 90 days replaces a body that began to appear toothless and ineffectual in the 55 cases brought before lawmakers since 2011.
Police officers were recently called to break up confrontations at University San Cristobal de Huamanga between students who wanted to continue classes, while others demanded the vice-chancellor’s exit, after the ANR failed to bring a solution.
An ‘intervention commission’ to investigate allegations of misappropriated funds by the chancellor of the private Inca Garcilaso de la Vega university in mid-May, was moreover refused entry by security staff at the Lima institution’s entrances.
El Pais reported the chancellor earned $4.7 million (£2.7 million) in 2010 – more than double the chancellor of New York’s University of Colombia, or six times that of vice-chancellor of Oxford University – and has been investigated by the public prosecutor.
The SUNEDU will now have wider powers to combat future similar cases.
The new rulings intend to drive up standards with higher entry standards for teachers. Undergraduate lecturers will now need a postgraduate degree, and at least 25 percent (from 15 percent) must be full-time staff.