In Colombia, A Lesson in Supporting Private Universities

 

Philippe Le Houérou is executive vice president and CEO of the International Finance Corp., the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group.


BOGOTA, Colombia – I had a remarkable experience recently in this country, which is emerging from five decades of conflict. I sat in a university classroom for a couple of hours and listened to students with big dreams, graduates who had started successful businesses, and representatives of large companies who were hiring the university’s graduates by the hundreds.

I felt completely energized. First, because the students were almost all from low-income families. Many had fled the war, and now felt so fortunate to have this opportunity.


The students were almost all from low-income families.
Many had fled the war
, and now felt so fortunate to have this opportunity.


And second, because the university is private.

The university, Uniminuto, not only had developed a tertiary education model that by all accounts was producing excellent graduates, but it also has figured out how to do good and stay profitable.

In 2009, my institution, the International Finance Corp., the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group, invested $8 million into Uniminuto. This was tiny in the scheme of our business. We provide billions of dollars in financing every year to spur private investment in developing countries.

But this may be one of the best $8 million investments we have ever made. It helped the university expand its infrastructure, upgrade technology, and improve its long-term financial strategy. At the time of our investment, Uniminuto had 30,000 students, just in Bogota; today it has more than 130,000 students studying in 20 different states.


At the time of our investment, Uniminuto had 30,000 students, just in Bogota;
today it has more than 130,000 students 
studying in 20 different states.


That’s 130,000 potential success stories. Uniminuto’s rapid growth – and it still is growing – is great news for Colombia. But it’s also very good news for many other countries around the world that are vastly under-developed, still suffering from the after-effects of conflict, or need more investment in tertiary education to prepare young people for the jobs of the future.

Of the world’s 1.2 billion youth aged 15 to 24, some 90 percent live in developing countries. One-third of these young people are unemployed and not enrolled in education or vocational training. We are wasting a precious resource.

As policymakers and the development community strive to improve economic prospects and reduce poverty in emerging markets, few investments would pay higher dividends than expanding access to quality education and skills training.


As policymakers and the development community strive to improve
economic prospects and reduce poverty in emerging markets, few investments would
pay higher dividends than expanding access to quality education and skills training.


The lack of investment in tertiary education globally is tragic for these young people, most of whom will face a lifetime of lower earnings, insecurity, and poorer health. It is also a serious obstacle for economic growth in emerging markets, where employers widely report that skills shortages prevent them from filling the jobs created by a 21st century economy.

Colombia is working hard with an approach that combines public and private education to expand access to the more than 3 million young people here who do have the opportunity for tertiary education. It has made great progress, but still has a long way to go.

In Colombia, enrollment rates in tertiary education almost doubled between 2004 and 2015, rising from 27 percent to 50 percent of high school graduates, but continuing to lag behind other countries in Latin America. Of those enrolled, just 30 percent attend technological and technical institutes, and 45 percent of firms in Colombia report in enterprise surveys that an inadequately trained labor force is a major constraint to business activity.

What needs to happen next? The government should continue to increase access to students from poor families with scholarships and loans and look to expand lending to vocational and technological institutes. It also can create regulatory and quality assurance frameworks that will help improve all types of tertiary institutions. The private universities also can do better by reaching out to industries and figure out how to better match their training to the skills needed in the workplace.


The private universities also can do better by reaching out to industries and
figure out how to better match their training to the skills needed in the workplace.


Private universities have played an essential role in the growth of Colombia’s education system, enrolling about half of all students. We are looking to invest more in private universities and vocational schools in Colombia.

In Colombia and elsewhere, the story isn’t just about enrolling more students. It is also about higher quality education. With more access to private capital, institutions can accelerate quality improvement plans, increase faculty capabilities, and invest in research and development required to achieve accreditation and become world-class institutions.


The government of Colombia has set a goal of becoming
“the most educated country” by 2025.


The government of Colombia has set a goal of becoming “the most educated country” by 2025. I applaud the leaders who set this goal.  It is only when our aspirations match the aspirations of the poor that we will have breakthroughs. In tertiary education, that means establishing a strong public system, complemented by strong private institutes, that can prepare our most valuable resource – young people – for the future.