Higher education in Colombia is governed by Law 30 of 1992, which was established to ingratiate Colombia into the neo-liberal process of ‘opening’ the economy and privatisation. Law 30 reaffirmed the tendency in higher education that has continued since such that 72% of all university education is now private, with only 28% remaining in the public domain.
The different actors within the university community have carried out various organisational forms to resist the policy of privatisation, and so there exist organisations of lecturers, students, of the non teaching staff (workers and administrative employees) and of retired staff, so that each constituency fought to counteract the total elimination of the public, state university.
The most organised sector within the universities in trade union terms is SINTRAUNICOL – Sindicato de Trabajadores Universitarios de Colombia – the University Workers Union of Colombia – which has branches in the country’s 29 state universities; there is also the national federation of university teachers and three student associations.
Human Rights Violations
Everyone in the university community has been subject to human rights violations The education sector has suffered the most from assassinations, disappearances, displacement, assassination attempts and threats. The majority of universities in the country have been the scene of murders and attempted murders, producing an exodus or forced displacement of important teachers and researchers, as well as student and trade union leaders. The common factor is action by the paramilitaries, who have formed fronts for operation inside the universities. These already exist in the universities of Antioquia, Córdoba, Cesar and Huila and which are in the process of being formed in the universities of Valle, National in Bogotá, Santander and Nariño.
This is consistent with the vision laid out by Carlos Castaño – one of the paramilitary chiefs – who in his extensive book on Colombia’s various problems addressed, in a chapter entitled "The turn in the U", the issue of public universities in a simplistic manner. Castaño affirmed that universities are full of leftists, communists and anarchists that have to be dealt with severely or eliminated should they resist. The turn proposed for the university in the class rooms is away from the academic areas that are supposedly a space for left-wing marxism, and that union, student and professional organisations may only exist if they do not oppose what has been legally established by the state and the Colombian government. If not then they, the paramilitaries, are ready to discipline or eliminate those who do not pay heed to their directions.
On the other hand there is the imposition of yet more privatisation. The "Alma Mater" project is the materialisation of this, it consists of a private entity in Colombia’s coffee region which was created to weaken the zone’s five state universities (the universities of Caldas, Quindío, National in Manizales, Technological University of Pereira and Tolima University). Alma Mater, with permission from the national education minister and the approval of the rectors of the state universities is a foundation that can draw to itself, in the character of a loan, teachers, auxiliaries, secretaries, students, projects and budgets to develop programmes, investigations and teaching and those universities are obliged to provide it with facilities.
Another form of privatisation is taking place in other universities where due to lack of state funding for their budgets they are permanently indebted to private finance. The situation at the University of Valle is of this type. This University has never budgeted for the welfare of employees once they are retired, generating a pension liability. In 1993 the Social Security Law 100 the government committed to put right this pension liability, something that it has systematically failed to do. Nevertheless the University continued making monthly payments to its pensioners and to cover the costs took recourse to costly bank loans, building up an immense debt.
In 1998 a crisis exploded on the University, its debt had passed more than 60 thousand million pesos, some £17 million, a debt which after a long process of negotiations reached more than 73 thousand million pesos (or £22 million – that is nearly £5 million more afte three years). It was finally agreed that this debt must be paid back over 12 years, by the end of which the University will have paid more than 230 thousand million pesos (£69 million). These payments are guaranteed in a Performance Agreement, that is the University subject itself to the administrative, academic as well as financial dictates of its creditor banks, reducing university autonomy to a caricature. In this form of privatisation there is no doubt that the only areas taught, researched and developed are whatever is deemed appropriate by the banks, in the service of the multinational companies and the Free Trade of Americas Agreement FTAA strategic project.
From the above context, what is most common is that universities are in an inexorable slow process of cuts, deteriorating and dismantling university welfare (sports centres, health, food subsidies, library services etc.) generating high additional costs, more than in the course fee itself. This rise in costs of being at university does not appear in the course fees, but nonetheless each student has to assume the costs individually.
Besides all of this, the Colombian government continues launching sharp attacks on the state universities. On the 24th and 31st of December 2001, two decrees were sent out to strike at university workers, both times in the middle of the night. Decree 2980 of 24th December denied the right of collective bargaining. That is to say it ruled that the associative demands of university employees and workers are not able to include seeking wage increases or improved terms of service. This is a decree from the executive, that is the President of the Republic, who is getting into issues of University Autonomy that under the National Constitution he is forbidden to do, as has been upheld in many High Court rulings.
Decree 2912 of 31st December is yet more serious. The decree redefines elements of public policy against the interests of the state university according to agreements with the World Bank. A state university teacher’s career has been regulated by law 1444 of 1992, in which the incentives and compensations for academic excellence, research and intellectual production are established. That is to say law 1444 motivates both university production and excellence, two elements that inevitably impinge on and positively affect the students. That is why state universities have had a high level within higher education (remembering that more than 70% of the sector is private). We have places that are internationally recognised in different scenarios. The state university in Colombia is the site of the best science and technology, because this system under law 1444 stimulates and rewards efforts to produce knowledge.
But with the signing of the "Extended Agreement by Colombia with the International Monetary Fund" on 3rd December 1999 by the then Treasury Minister and by Miguel Urrutia director of the central bank, the government committed itself to reduce transfers to health and education, cutting spending "excluding the payment of interest on the external debt". The new decree 2912 of 31st December is an application that on the one hand meets the IMF conditions, and on the other weakens the quality and excellence of the state university to discourage the production of knowledge, handing this over to the private institutions.
Against this attack the state university sector developed a series of strikes, permanent assemblies, meetings, and forums in a national mobilisation. After four months of pressure the most that government has conceded is to revise some aspects of decree 2912.
On going to press SINTRAUNICOL is once again on strike, against wage cuts totalling 69% over the last 8 years. For more information and messages of support, write to Email: email@example.com