Ecuador’s Yachay Technical University, the centerpiece of President Rafael Correa’s plan to build a “university system for the 21st century,” celebrated its first anniversary last week. Yachay, located in Imbabura Province, north of Quito, opened its doors in 2014 with with a student body of 220, which today has grown to 648.
Yachay, sometimes called the “super university,” is part of the “city of knowledge” that the government hopes will become a Latin American equivalent of Silicon Valley in the U.S., serving as an incubator for new technology.
In a ceremony honoring the anniversary, Ecuador’s Secretary of Higher Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation, René Ramirez said Yachay is the country’s first step in building a culture that creates “human capital.”
“Yachay Tech is a symbol for the country of what we want to be as a society,” he said. “We are building a creative, innovative society based on knowledge where wealth will be measured in the creativity of Ecuadorians. We are building our future here.”
Yachay is one of four national-level universities mandated in 2009 by the government to lead what Correa calls “a revolution in higher education.” He contends that Ecuador’s educational system, from grade school through university graduate school, is substandard and requires “top to bottom” recreation.” Correa, who received his graduate education in Belgium and the U.S., says Ecuador needs to follow world, not Latin American standards, in building a new system.
The universities along with a program that imports foreign professors and researchers, has drawn strong criticism from faculty members of Ecuador’s established universities who say the money would be better spent upgrading existing institutions.
One of the critics is Arturo Villavicencio, an environmental researcher who was part of a team of scientists to share the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He sees the new universities as a strategy by the government to bypass the traditional university structure.
“Yachay and the other new universities are an effort by the government to eliminate the autonomy enjoyed in the past by university faculty,” Villavicencio said. “The government sees higher education as a pyramid structure with Yachay at the top. It is a system it wants to control through centralized bureaucracy,”
He adds: “The established universities desperately need the billions of dollars being committed to the new system,” he says. “Why not build on the foundation we already have instead of investing in a dream that will never come true.”
Villavicencio and other university faculty also complain about the Prometheus program, which provides fellowships to foreign professors and researchers to work in Ecuador. Under the program, the fellowships pay as much as four times the salaries of Ecuadorian academics.
“This is an insult to Ecuadorians,” Villavicencio said.
Ramirez counters that the talent that Prometheus is recruiting does not exist in Ecuador. “To build a stronger research base and stronger universities we need to bring in the best talent in the world and that’s what we are doing,” he said, adding, “This is something we are willing to pay for.”