A very important meeting at the University (with postscript)

Audience at UEB-CEEACES meeting 3 Oct. 2012

Last night my host, Dr. Manuel Albán, who has been coordinating international programs at the UEB, phoned to tell me that today there would be a very important meeting for my host university, the Universidad Estatal de Bolívar, and I was invited to attend. At 10:00 am today I sat in the front row of a large, full auditorium, beside the Dean of the School of Agriculture/Veterinary Medicine, among many UEB friends and visiting scholars. The day’s presentation was by the CEAACES, the national committee tasked with the examination, evaluation and re-accreditation of all Ecuadorian universities. [CEAACES: El Consejo de Evaluación, Acreditación y Aseguramiento de la Calidad de la Educación Superior. The Board of Assessment, Accreditation and Quality Assurance in Higher Education]

A law passed by the Ecuadorian government nearly two years ago (October 12, 2010) created the CEAACES, which was formed of 6 Ph.D. level experts in academic institutions, and which directs them to set up a program for evaluating all higher level (i.e. post-secondary through doctoral) academic institutions and programs of study across the entire nation. The CEAACES committee operates independently from direct government control and from the country’s various educational institutions. The CEAACES President is Dr. Guillaume Long, Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of London’s Institute for the Study of the Americas (his M.S. and B.A. are also from U. London in Britain.) Dr. Guillaume’s parents are French and English, and he speaks a fluent and sometimes very rapid Castellan. During the meeting Dr. Long explained the objectives and methods of the CEAACES for over an hour, and then heard and replied to questions from faculty, administrators and students for at least another hour. The large hall was filled and the audience was involved with the presentation. Several other members of the panel spoke, including the Rector (President) of Universidad Estatal de Bolívar Ing. Diómedes Nuñez Minaya, MBA, who welcomed the committee.

Dr. Guillaume Long of CEAACES at UEB

Regarding the topic of the national re-assessment of higher education (universities, colleges, and programs of study), it’s important to mention how remarkable and ground-shaking this new, long-term project really is. First, a bit of background to provide a sense of scale for this operation.

Ecuador is a rather small nation, in total area about equal to the state of Colorado, or slightly larger than Great Britain or Uganda. In population, Ecuador, with approximately 14.5 million persons in 2010, ranks as the 68th largest nation, about equal to Cambodia, Zambia or Guatemala, about 15% smaller than the Netherlands (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population). If Ecuador were a US state it would be the fifth largest in population, behind Florida, with about 15% more people than Illinois or Pennsylvania (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_population)

In Ecuador there are currently 71 universities, according to CEAACES (http://ceaaces.gob.ec/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=33:universidades-&catid=15:universidades&Itemid=35). More that 1/2 of these (at least 37) are less than 20 years old. Imagine if there were 30 or 35 new universities established in Illinois or in Pennsylvania since 1992. Obviously, there’s been a tremendous expansion in the number of universities in Ecuador over the past two decades. The current CEAACES review and the resulting dis-accreditations are essentially a contraction in response to that expansion. After the tremendous gains in the quantity of universities nationwide, the current plan addresses the quality of universities nationwide.

In April 2012 fourteen universities across Ecuador were shut down as a result of the CEAACES evaluations. Students currently enrolled were allowed to continue their programs, but no new students were permitted. The closed universities were placed in a sort of receivership, their final semesters directed by faculty from other universities. For three summers (2009-2011) I’ve taken a group of students from Guaranda (UEB) and Johnson City (ETSU) to one of these universities – La Escuela Superior Politecnica Ecologica Amazonica (ESPEA, in Tena) for several days of botanical field trips.

As they say in East Tennessee, “you’re not from around here, are you?”, so maybe I ought not venture opinions on this topic, but I have worked, studied and taught in universities for over 25 years – most of my adult life – so in a way I do come from here (academia), and I’ve visited and worked with many Ecuadorian universities for several years. My impression is that this critical review and recertification is a much-needed step towards making the Ecuadorian university system rigorous and effective. There are excellent, world-class universities in Ecuador, and there are universities which lack the most basic levels of trained teachers, classroom materials, or resources for research. The current process recognizes that some programs have provided students far too little education in their respective fields to justify the degrees that they issue. Like any sort of regulation, it does limit the availability of a product (i.e. university programs and degrees) when first imposed, but it improves the quality of the product henceforth for all involved.

What is remarkable to me, and admirable, is the open discussion of fundamental issues in the higher education system locally and nationally. Pay of temporary (“adjunct” in US university) teacher is in some places very low (below $4.00/contact hour, without paying preparation time), and they may have very heavy teaching schedules (typically five classes/semester). Textbooks and teaching supplies are sometimes scarce. Unlike in the U.S., most university teachers do not have Ph.D.s. In some institutions the older faculty may be so firmly established (entrenched?) that younger, well-qualified candidates cannot get positions. What are reasonable expectations for faculty publication numbers/year, and in what class of journals? What systems will be used to insure that economically disadvantaged students, minority students or students of indigenous ethnicity are included in the higher education programs? Will the testing of students used to evaluate their programs of study be a proper measure of the programs’ strength or weaknesses? Can spending be shifted more towards academics than to administration (a perennial question in the US too)? There were many more questions asked at today’s meeting, and the concern of everyone involved in the university about this evaluation program appears quite real. Dr. Long emphasized that they were making an deliberate effort to assure that the process was “democratic”. As an outside observer among the administrators and reviewers, and only 1/2 fluent in Spanish, it seemed like the process was working OK. To me this is remarkable.

Hostería El Angel in Vinchoa

Following the presentation and question-answer session I was invited to join a group for lunch. This group included members of the CEAACES, administrators and faculty from UEB, and international faculty currently conducting research or teaching at UEB. We traveled a few kilometers from the meeting hall to an elegant restaurant and hotel – Hostería El Angel – in the neighboring community of Vinchoa. The architecture was a traditional open-timbered and plaster Spanish style, nicely done. While we waited I spoke with several visiting professors, including several social scientists from Spain and Cuba, a Spanish botanist, and my colleague, Dr. Jerome Mwinyelle, a linguist from East Tennessee State University.

The lunch was quite tasty, beginning with a delicious tamale with olives and chicken, wrapped in a bijao leaf (Heliconia bihai),

Tamale at Restaurant Hosteria El Angel near Guaranda. (Photo: J. Mwinyelle)

followed by chicken and beef dishes, then a dessert of orange flan and yellow cake, served with wine (or cola) and water. Muy sabroso! (very tasty!). Buen provecho! (bon appétit, enjoy your meal!).

Drs. Jerome Mwinyelle (ETSU) and Manuel Albán (UEB) with delicious lunch, Hosteria El Angel.

Post-script, 26 November 2012:
To be fair and in the interest of balance I want to mention here some legitimate and non-trivial concerns or criticisms of the evaluation and reaccreditation  program discussed here. The main criticism is that the targets or goals set by the CEAACES council are not feasible or realistic. For example, the council’s target (is this really a requirement? it seems impossible) is for all university professors to obtain Ph.D.s within a rather short period, perhaps five years. At present there are few or no institutions granting Ph.D.s in Ecuaodor and the vast majority (maybe 95%) of professors don’t have doctoral degrees. It’s not realistic to think (or to require) that these professors can all take off for four or five years and get a Ph.D. in another country. Another unrealistic target or requirement is that all faculty have 12 publications in international journals. At the state universities practically no faculty would now (or in the forseeable future) have a dozen publications in international journals. Obviously, the goals set by CEAACES will need to be revised if they are to be applied in the real world.

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About Tim McDowell

I'm a botanist from East Tennessee State University conducting a Fulbright project in Guaranda, Ecuador.
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