My throat was burning, really burning. I stopped on the hill in Bogota’s Macarena village; startled at how tonsilitis can creep up on you so fast.
And then I realised. I’d swallowed a mouthful of tear gas. Rioting students at the university at the top of the hill were once again taking a pounding from police.
I sympathise with the students. I do. But they’re wrong.
It seems like forever that these youthful protestors have been tearing up our streets; fighting against tanks of police dressed like Robocop, spraying their blunt, angry graffiti and demanding that the government sits up and listens.
Kids in this country don’t want their beloved, near-free public universities turned into the mirror of their private ones – where the rich can afford higher education and the poor just have to suffer.
That’s why they hate the Law or Ley 30 reform.
Most vocal are the students from Colombia’s famous National University – that huge, crumbling (dirt cheap) institution in the west of the city. It admits students on academic prowess and has the honour of having taught and inspired greats including Nobel literature laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Except that the National University isn’t going to be so great, if the current trend continues.
This month an education consultancy called Quacquarelli Symonds published, for the first time, a league table of Latin America’s top 200 universities.
Colombia has 20 universities in the table and two in the top 10. The public National University sits at place number 9, pipped by the private university Los Andes, at number 6 on a scale measuring everything from staff-student ratios and lecturers’ qualifications to reputation and research.
Los Andes is damned expensive, too expensive, but it’s a not-for-profit university and it’s clearly using the money where it counts.
The trouble is that good universities cost money and, more to the point, good research costs money. If lecturers at your university aren’t at the cutting edge of research, what are you learning? Something from a text book?
I recently read an Economist article which pointed to some of the broader failings of Latin American universities:
“Students pay nothing, the staff are unsackable and the curriculum is old-fashioned and politicised,” it said.
“Good teaching and research are not rewarded with extra funding and promotions; institutions do not lose money if their students drop out. Except in Brazil, many faculty members are part-timers without PHDs.”
If that’s really the broad situation across this continent, then it’s a disgrace.
A student climbed onto my bus this morning with the words “Say No to Law 30″ cellotaped across his hoodie. He held forth for a good 10 minutes, telling the passengers exactly who they should back in the protest.
“If we’re not careful, we’ll end up like Chile,” he mourned. I was incensed, but sadly I lacked the Spanish and energy at 6.30am to stand up and argue with him.
Chile has a problem, the students are going crazy there too. The profit-generating universities are over-priced and there is no decent student loans system. The government is starving the universities (“one of the world’s lowest levels of public funding,” the Economist says) and, to add insult to injury, students in Chile study long degrees.
But the “we’ll end up like Chile” line just doesn’t wash. Just because you start paying for your universities doesn’t mean they have to start looking to make a profit.
And everybody – including the poorest of the poor – can ‘afford’ university. They just need a decent loans system to do it and you have to hope that with a decent degree, they’ll one day make the cash to repay it.
A case in point is a friend of mine, a brilliant friend, who went to university on a spit and a promise and has just graduated to a first job that most Colombians can only dream about (he’s set to make more money per month than I did as a 27-year-old graduate with six years experience in my field)
Yet what will he repay to the university that set him up for life? Nothing. Not a bean.
And he’s not alone. A doctor friend told me the public university he attended (I won’t start naming names) is probably using the same textbooks he used 20 years ago.
“I see the old equipment they use, I have no idea what they’re even learning. I have no idea what will happen when they go out to work,” he said.
“But look at me. I went to that university. I had that education. I didn’t pay a thing for it then and I’m not paying a thing for it now.”
One thing incensing the students is the amount of money Colombian governments splash on the endless fight against the guerrilla. If they spent that money on higher education, they argue, then no-one would need to pay.
There are others who are infuriated about the prevalence of corruption. What about if more taxes went into the universities, rather than some fat politician’s back pocket?
Well, it’s sad to say but the war and the corruption are here to stay, at least for now. They’re issues for another day. But using these vices as an excuse for tolerating a stuck-in-the-mud higher education system? Frankly, it sucks.
What are you supposed to say to your children, as they stand and contemplate the ruins of your universities?
“I’m sorry son. We didn’t spend the money we needed to on these places. It was a protest, you see, against the war and corruption. I’m sure you understand.”
Young people, out of everyone, should be the ones refusing to let Colombia’s historic problems hold them back.
But, like I said, I understand. I sympathise.
Some of the treatment the students have received from police here is appalling; indeed no-one should die exercising their democratic right to protest.
Yes, the students have to riot. They have to prove to the government that they’re there and they care. They have to at least let the out-of-pocket future generations know they ‘gave it a go’.
But the sad truth is they’re rioting for themselves – not for the universities they care so much about.