“Education cannot be regulated by the market,” declared Peru’s president Ollanta Humala following the approval of the “University Law” which ushers in some of the most sweeping changes that Peruvian higher education has ever seen.
The law passed last year establishes a statutory framework for the first time, which all higher education institutions have to abide by if they are to maintain their teaching license.
The controversial ruling has not passed without resistance, however, as evidenced by recent violent confrontations at various institutions across Peru. It has even been cited of turning education into no more than “merchandise”, daily La Republica reported.
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A recent student protest at the country’s oldest university, San Marcos, was attacked by gunmen and thugs accused of being hired by the university’s own rector, Pedro Cotillo.
Cotillo refused to step down in accordance with the new law requiring all university rectors and vice-rectors to be subject to faculty election. The situation was later defused when he checked into a clinic citing stress and failed to return to his position.
However, it is private universities who are the main target of the new regulative regime, in particular those universities of ‘medio pelo’ (low quality) accused of acting as degree factories; churning out pieces of paper in return for cash without equipping the students with the learning and skills necessary to survive in the real world.
As Humala bluntly put it “the students are being cheated” while Universities and their rectors in particular, reap obscene rewards. Luis Cervantes Liñán the rector of University Garcilaso de La Vega has been reported to earn an astronomical $600,000 per month while the entrepreneur Cesar Acuña has built up a business empire on the back of university education, set to help launch his presidential campaign in the country.
The new law now obliges university teaching faculty to possess at least a postgraduate degree (such as a Masters), have a roster of permanent lecturers and also requires the award of Bachelor degrees to be dependent on completion of an investigative thesis or professional development.
The ruling also attempts to prevent private universities becoming piggy banks for its owners and management by subjecting them to a stricter tax regime with tax breaks offered for reinvesting profits in improving education quality.
There are concerns over restrictions of academic freedom.
From now on academic curricula in subjects as diverse as engineering and philosophy have to be submitted for approval by the National Superintendency of Education (SUNEDU), the new body set up to administrate the law.
Aside from worries over the potential for political censorship, many question how well placed a bureaucracy really is to set rules over a curriculum in subjects that are constantly evolving and must meet the demands of a labor market that is evolving even faster.
Others take issue with the law’s definition of what, exactly, a university is, arguing that its narrow demand that a university must conduct research means that institutions that could offer degrees in technical subjects without a research element will be unnecessarily deemed inadequate under the new law.
World famous Peruvian chef and entrepreneur Gaston Acurio has claimed he would be unable to open his proposed University of Gastronomy and Tourism, having to find Chef’s with Masters degrees to teach and ensuring the institution meets necessary culinary research criteria.
“It’s a law that lacks Modernity, the challenges of today are different and so are the opportunities,” lamented Gaston.
“A violation of academic autonomy”
Peru’s leading candidates for the forthcoming presidential election have been more blunt. American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) candidate and former president Alan Garcia called the law a “crime in the mold of (Hugo) Chávez’s politics” while politician Keiko Fujimori called it “a violation of academic autonomy”.
No candidate has yet expressed a desire to shut down the SUNEDU or repeal the law however, signalling a decisive and momentous shift in a country that, unlike the rest of Latin America, has up to now charted a firmly laissez-faire path.