Over the last few weeks, there has been a new attempt to sabotage education reform in Peru. Members of Congress on the Education Committee have approved a preliminary legislative project that seeks to undermine the advances of the country’s higher education reform law, the University Act of 2014 (N° 30330). The majority of Congress has yet to approve this crusade, but it poses a real threat to the progress made in the last seven years.
The “University Reform,” as it has been called since its enactment, is a fundamental stepping-stone to giving the Peruvian government power to improve conditions in the country’s higher education system. During the 1980s, the increased demand for higher education coincided with the state’s abandonment of public universities. This discrepancy created fertile ground for the radical views of the Shining Path and authoritarian measures from the state. In the 1990s, to increase supply and democratize access, the government decreed that any person could create a for-profit educational institution. Policymakers trusted the market to regulate educational quality. However, time demonstrated that although the supply increased, the quality of the new universities did not.
By the mid-2010s, it became clear that the higher education market needed state supervision. The University Act of 2014 served as a policy response to transfer the regulation of educational quality from the private market to the state. This reform consists of a new system, led by the National Superintendence of University Higher Education (SUNEDU), that establishes the basic operating requirements for every university. These basic quality conditions include adequate infrastructure, qualified faculty, and research development, among others. Through accreditation, the state guarantees its citizens a minimum education quality in every university — public and private alike.
As the University Reform was debated, many members of Congress opposed the reform. Notably, one Congressmember owned a university that had their license denied for not meeting the basic requirements of education quality. Still, after its passage, several groups—often with private interests—continued to lobby against the reform. Initial claims were that universities have a principle of autonomy guaranteed in the Constitution, and any state intervention would be unconstitutional. However, soon enough, the Peruvian Constitutional Court ruled against the demand and reaffirmed the legitimacy of the reform.
Today, after more than seven years of political tensions, the reform has made extraordinary advances. The scientific production of universities in Scopus has increased 244%, placing knowledge development as a cornerstone of universities. During this time, SUNEDU has denied licenses to 48 universities and two graduate schools that scammed students with low-quality services. Although this has meant that the future of more than 250,000 students from these universities remains uncertain, the government is committed to assisting these students.
Nevertheless, new attempts to undermine the reform are taking advantage of this situation. Under the pretext of defending students, members of Congress with ties to for-profit universities have issued legal actions in attempts to tear down the reform. Their goal is to provide a lifeline to universities with denied licenses and place university representatives in charge of SUNEDU. If successful, these actions would mean going back to the autoregulation scheme, with university representatives overseeing their own institutions.
Universities, student collectives, media outlets, and the general public have joined forces to reject this new attempt. However, for the first time since the reform’s beginning, the Peruvian government’s response to the attacks has been ambiguous. Although the prime minister and the newly instated minister of education have been more emphatic about their support for the reform, President Pedro Castillo, a former teacher, has remained indifferent. Most surprisingly, Congressmembers of the president’s party, Peru Libre, and opposing political parties have aligned to press these attacks. Although experts have pointed out that improvements in the University Reform are needed, the recent efforts to revert to a state of autoregulation could prove disastrous to the education system’s quality and detrimental for students.
Featured Image by Andina.