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There is a question that is repeated in Bogotá when you meet someone for the first time: In which school did you study? The answer gives many more clues in Colombia than in other countries. The circle of friends, the social stratum, the last name… Education divides society into two halves: those who have to afford it and those who don’t. For Raquel Bernal (Bogotá, 49 years old), rector of the Universidad de Los Andes, one of the most important reasons for segregation is the enormous difference in resources between the public and private spheres: “That usually translates into quality. It is a limitation of the educational system”.
It is the first time that a woman occupies this office after 75 years and 23 male rectors. Bernal receives América Futura in front of a bookcase full of books, orchids and two large oil paintings of his children, Santiago and Sofía. An economist specializing in early childhood and education economics, the rector reflects on the gender gaps in the region. Although she is not comfortable with the term feminist, she promotes “a gender agnostic education.” After a year in office, she talks about possible and effective female leadership and about finding ways for female students to appropriate careers such as scientists, where the highest percentage of teachers and students are men: “If women have a pattern Less competitive, the way to participate in class can’t just be raising your hand.”
In a country where only 39.7% of students who graduate from high school pursue higher education and where the informality rate is around 60%, the challenges of private universities such as Los Andes are key to social mobility. “We invest a third of what we earn from enrollment in scholarships, but quality costs.”
Ask. Colombia is one of the countries on the continent where it is most difficult to break out of circles of vulnerability. And precisely one of the factors is the lack of access to education…
Answer. In Colombia, it is difficult to surpass the predecessor generation and, when it is, it is due to high-quality education. So, the factors that determine the quality of education are the teachers, the infrastructure, the curricula, the educational resources such as workshops, laboratories… And all of that costs. Quality education like the one at this university generates great mobility. At this moment we already have close to 30% of our undergraduate students in strata one, two and three (they are the lowest, out of a total of six), we monitor these students and really generate a lot of change, individually and in their communities. They go back and support their families.
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Q. Last year, you increased the price of tuition by 12%, which may drive away students with fewer resources. What alternatives does the institution propose to stop opening this gap?
R. I wish we could invest more in scholarships like universities with large endowments like MIT and Harvard do. But, given the size of the university, we invest about a third of what we earn from enrollment in scholarships for young people in vulnerable conditions. That ten years ago was not like that at all. It is an incredible achievement that has changed the face of the university. As I told you, quality costs. But we must offer scholarships so that talented young people who cannot afford to get this quality education. That’s what we do.
Q. Louise Richardson, first vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said that there will not be enough women at the helm of universities “until we have acted to eliminate the trolls menacing below them. With what trolls battle you?
R. I grew up without any gender bias throughout my childhood, youth, and early adulthood. I never felt any barrier to achieve what I wanted. The great barriers I have felt in this leadership position. And they are human; there are differences in leadership and it is difficult to reconcile. But for me they are not trolls. The invitation I always make is to put yourself in the other’s shoes; the plugin is what makes a very powerful addition. Many times we ourselves are the ones who act differently to fit into the masculine leadership. And men are not used to certain ways of leading. I, for example, admit mistakes without a problem and there is always someone, even women, who does not like that. So I feel that yes, there is still a transition period. We will learn to lead from who we are and men will understand that this complement is also very valuable, even for them.
Q. In it speech he gave a few weeks ago, you said: “When the culture of the dominance of one group over another is broken, power and value are activated in each one of us. It makes us all great.” 72% of Latin American universities are run by men. Why is that transition so slow?
R. I think we are like any other organization. What is seen in the university is the result of what happens in society. And this is a process that will take time. All the research I know of goes back to explaining gender differences by investments in the home. I have children ages 11 and 14, this job is very difficult for me. This requires a cultural change so that we all contribute equally at home. For this reason, I really like investing in early childhood. I feel that this touches from early on, later it is already very difficult to return those stereotypes and those patterns. It has been shown in developed countries that a neutral curriculum and teacher training that does not repeat stereotypes lead to children who do not understand the careers of boys and girls.
Q. What do the patterns of the economics of education in Colombia tell us?
R. The truth is that not much is known. There are two types of patterns in developing economies. Low-income families that redirect their economy to the child with the greatest potential and those who do not. Children’s education is the life insurance of socio-economically vulnerable households. And that has many repercussions on the way one educates. Although these studies have not been done here, people do believe a lot in education, really. Parents invest what little they have in quality schools, universities, but that money does not return what it should return.
Q. Colombia has an informality rate of over 58%. And being a graduate is often not a shield for precariousness…
R. Supply and demand need to be coordinated. There are 678 classified occupations and about 30% are of a high level of complexity: those who create, innovate, managers… The other 70% are routine or operational occupations with some managerial level. But the educational offer is the other way around. This is an economy of primary resources, there is not much industry with high added value. However, supply and demand are not well matched and we do not focus much on this. The universities have to sit down with the industry to establish the occupations that are going to be needed to achieve an export and economic project. And produce that workforce. I, for example, believe that this country has to dedicate itself to modern agriculture and efficient food production. America is going to be the world’s market in the face of possible food security crises and we have to be prepared.
We are in a moment in which 60 million occupations will disappear, but more than 100 million will appear in the next ten years. Although we don’t really know what they are. We have to anticipate. Also, today’s students have very different dreams; of a more dynamic, more fluid life, where the experience is more important than the result. And interdisciplinarity becomes very important in the context of what are the global problems of humanity.
Q. Is artificial intelligence becoming a threat?
R. No, I don’t see anything wrong with it. It doesn’t scare me at all. I train the student to be someone who adapts and who learns to learn all his life. It seems to me that it is a tool to improve not only education, but many areas of societies and economies if we use it well. Imagine that we can predict well who are at academic risk, who are at psychological risk, and we can dedicate more and better resources to those at high risk. It seems to me that it will leverage much of the improvement of the life of the human being if we do it well and if we train people so that they know how to take advantage of that artificial intelligence.