Tradition and innovation: higher education supporting Colombia’s transformation

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By Julio Jairo Ceballos Sepúlveda • Rector, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana

Colombia is a developing country that has seen an outstanding evolution in its higher education in recent years. Of the 287 higher education institutions in the country, 82 are universities, and 47 of those are accredited to a high quality mark. The country has around two and a half million people at this level of education, and about 55% of them are at undergraduate level. There have been significant advances made to bring more women into higher education, and today, close to 48% of the total population are women.

As part of its strategic development plans, the Ministry of National Education of Colombia has specified many aspirational measures including: the configuration of the national system of tertiary education aiming to technical and technological levels, the significant advancement of rural education and the expansion of coverage indicators in the field, the reduction of drop-out indicators in higher education (in Colombia this indicator is very high: 42% of students leave the system), the improvement of quality and coverage in early childhood, and the constant qualification of teachers.

The country faces significant challenges, especially those associated with research and innovation development. For these to flourish the following are essential: a greater incentive to internationalisation processes, support on the establishment of cooperation networks, encouragement of large-scale research projects, and the promotion of development centers located in universities.

The Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB) has been, within this system a pillar in the contribution to education, training of teachers, providing projection in the fields of human education, science, and technology as a competitiveness factor for the country and, recently, UPB received the Multicampus High Quality Institutional Accreditation awarded by the Ministry of National Education of Colombia in recognition of the quality and extension of its services, as well as the impact in the several Colombian regions. It is a house of knowledge with 82 years of tradition and innovation, whose mission lies in the integral education for a human and social transformation of the country. Its main campus is in Medellín and it has active campuses in the cities of Bucaramanga, Montería and Palmira.

UPB has always been innovating for the education of Colombians beginning with its founding Faculty of Law. In 1938, the University created the first Colombian based Faculty of Industrial Chemistry, which became a model for the industries in other regions of the country. 76 years ago, the Faculty of Architecture was forged as a pillar of the construction of Medellín, entering modernity, making a contribution by its students and graduates to the design and planning of a city that was to be vital for the competitiveness and growth of the country.

Today, UPB maintains this vision by opening the way to programs that are at the forefront of the needs and projection of Colombia – and the wider world. The first national Faculty of Nanotechnology Engineering sought to break paradigms with a strong idea that developing countries deserve, and need, to work in disruptive sciences that the world requires. Nanotechnology is transverse to fields such as health and energy, food and textiles, all ideas to which UPB scientists and laboratories have committed. The pioneering academic program in Digital Entertainment Design has a focus on pedagogical and competitive projection through video games and animation, and UPB also boasts the first academic program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management in Colombia.

The university defined a specific orientation for teaching and researching in order to facilitate innovation, and has established its strategic focus areas in humanisation and culture, health, energy, technology, and water, food and territory, and these research areas have already generated around 16 innovation patents and 30 in patented application. A new research and innovation building supports academic processes in engineering, health, media and journalism, architecture and design, and other subjects. The goal is to promote entrepreneurship in order to create new solutions for the city and industry helping them to enter the innovation ecosystem.

Education for the indigenous

Colombia has overcome the armed conflict of recent years thanks to the peace agreement signed between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This conflict affected different populations for more than 50 years, especially indigenous communities. A way to offset this situation was to offer higher education programs in remote regions by bringing universities to those territories.

An example of such social commitment has been UPB’s program to bring education to ethnic minorities and communities that are far from major cities. Over fifty years ago, the university took on the challenge of the education of indigenous and Afro-Colombian teachers, community leaders, female heads of families, and peasants in regions such as the Amazon, Putumayo and Cauca. The main goal has been the promotion of the social structure for building peace.

The degree program in Ethnoeducation, that currently has around 1,500 students and over 3,000 graduates, has been able to reach areas in which there is little presence of the State in order to work towards the rescue and preservation of traditions, and in education as the pillar for cultural cohesion and transformation. The university presence in these regions, which strengthens the competences and abilities of teachers who can graduate with skills in community leadership, has been made possible by the agreement established with the Missionary Institute of Anthropology (IMA), of the Colombian Conference of Bishops. Abilities taught can range from cutting trees, carving canoes, recognition of river canals, and teaching classes, to working as town councilors, mayors, and womens’ leaders, with abilities to manage and develop projects that have an impact on their communities. The final degree projects of this program include subjects related to ethno-education, education – pedagogy/didactics, preservation, rescue, and memory of cultural values, and productive projects that enhance self-management and contribute to the strengthening of the community to promote local development.

Education for life

An emerging country also requires a healthy population and institutions of higher education are needed to play their part here too. UPB’s clinic contributes as an institution destined to protect life with optimal care, providing the education of medical and nursery students, and building strength in medical research and innovation. In 2018, the Clínica UPB was certified as a University Hospital by the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of Colombia, a seal that demonstrates the quality and the vision of an institution that is working towards the wellbeing of individuals. One of its greatest contributions has been the development of greater abilities in the professionals who study there bringing benefits to patient health, largely achieved through research studies and projects.

One tangible outcome was the discovery in 2015 of a cancer derived from the cells of a parasite. A subsequent research study consolidated findings in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Natural History Museum in London, and the Asahikawa University in Japan. This discovery and follow-up created an opportunity to develop research work about the causes that can develop cancer in people and the relationship of this disease with infections.

So, universities are making a leading contribution to Colombia´s education at all ages and stages of life from the UPB Clínica onwards; the UPB School, with around five thousand students, educates from childhood to adolescence in their first phases of knowledge to university decision making. From undergraduate and postgraduate, offering all areas of study, to doctorate degrees, university extension programs, language courses, diverse academic and cultural offerings, all represent to Colombians a university setting of education for life.

And while institutions of higher education are called upon to play their part in the development of Colombia and its people, the National Government is also committed to supporting low-income citizens so that they can access undergraduate programs. Over recent years, the Government has supported 40,000 students from all of Colombia’s regions to study in the best universities of the country. By following such synergistic paths, the access to and excellence in Colombian higher education are being promoted and some of the inequity gaps in its society are being closed.

The presbyter Julio Jairo Ceballos Sepúlveda has been rector of Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana since 2013. Born in the municipality of Amalfi, Antioquia he conducted secondary studies in the Minor Seminary of Medellín. He was ordained as a deacon in 1976, and a presbyter in 1977 by Monsignor Tulio Botero Salazar, Archbishop of Medellín (1958 – 1979). In 1984 he studied Theology on Marriage and Family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome, Italy. He also holds a Canon Degree in Ethics and a Master’s Degree in Philosophy and Theology from the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. His thesis: “Appropriate anthropology as an integral vision of man in the thought of Karol Wojtyla” was awarded Summa Cum Laude.