By Natalia Ariza Ramirez
A few years ago, someone told me that one of the most motivating campaign promises to encourage young Colombians to vote in elections was to offer them help in accessing higher education. Although, this was, unfortunately, not the most prominent campaign promise in the recent election, it is still an important challenge that should continue to motivate us.
One of the most significant barriers to quality higher education is poor primary and secondary education. In Colombia, it is clear that if you attend low quality primary and secondary schools, which is usually the only option for the poor, the door to access quality higher education remains closed.
In 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos’ government introduced the Ser Pilo Paga Program (PSPP) in an attempt provide access to higher education for young people from the lowest economic group with the best test results. However, Colombia’s public higher education system continues to lack focus, and some academics and politicians discredit PSPP by saying it is actually an attack against equity. They argue that PSPP takes away resources from public higher education, which as it stands does not guarantee access to education for the poorest. They also refuse to listen to any alternatives that might eliminate these barriers.
Students who do manage to enroll in university often struggle with the academic rigor of their classes. I have heard university faculty and administrators say that students, even those who pass their admissions exams, do not arrive at university with the skills and knowledge to meet the basic requirements of higher education. However, I have seen very few of them work with primary and secondary educators to address the underlying issues.
Under the leadership of the recently elected president Iván Duque, the new national government should use two approaches to break the cycle that keeps poor people in a mediocre education system. Faced with the low-quality primary and secondary educational systems in Colombia, we first need to transform teacher training programs. The National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo; PND), created under President Santos, established that all teacher training programs must be accredited . Enforcing this measure would lead to the closure of at least half of the degree programs, but 200 better quality programs would still remain.
Second, we need to restructure the higher education model that currently exists in Colombia. The State University System (Sistema de Universidades Estatales; SUE) must become the protagonist of this great reform – but not a protagonist who asks for money and demands autonomy in return. The SUE must become the kind of protagonist who analyzes, promotes, and executes a plan to provide higher education for everyone. The SUE must lead the process to transform higher education to match developed countries around the world. To do this, the SUE must collaborate with the National Learning Service (SENA) as well as secondary schools.
Where could the SUE find space for 1.5 million new students in quality higher education? To find an answer, we should explore options such as creating 12th and 13th grades in secondary schools, something that resembles current efforts by the National University of Colombia and the Admissions and Academic Mobility Special Program, or something similar to the U.S. Community College model.
These alternatives would enable the development of the General Higher Education (GHE) model. A two-year GHE program would close the knowledge gap required to access universities, ensuring that higher education meets minimum standards and graduates have adequate skills and knowledge, as shown by the results of the SABER PRO tests .
This model would give us the opportunity to rethink SENA and the role it plays in Colombia. SENA was created 61 years ago, with the intention of training industrial workers. Today, SENA is no longer just a trades training center – it is the gateway to the world of higher education for more than a million young people. SENA must also expand young people’s ability to think and create. SENA can propel the GHE model, offering training for technical professionals to increase their competence beyond the basic level.
The Santos government created the National Tertiary Education System, which would be the ideal institution to carry out these recommendations. To make this a reality, the government needs to make a political commitment to creating equal opportunities for young people. We should not destroy what has already been achieved, but rather take advantage of our accomplishments and learn from other examples around the world.
 In Colombia, there is the Quality Assurance System, through which higher education institutions can be accredited when they meet the standards established by this system.
 All undergraduate students take this test their last semester as a requirement to obtain their professional title.
NATALIA ARIZA RAMIREZ is an economist at Universidad Nacional de Colombia and was Deputy Minister of Higher Education in Colombia (2014-2016). She is an expert in the design, execution, monitoring, and evaluation of public policies, especially in the education sector, and has led the construction of regulatory and public policy frameworks in institutions in Colombia including the National Apprenticeship Service, Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Social Protection, and the National Planning Department. Natalia is a CLAS Visiting Fellow for the Fall 2018 semester.