Classes began a year ago at Ikiam Regional Amazonian University but the jury is still out about whether it is meeting its objective of improving the lives of those who live in Ecuador’s Amazon region.
Ikiam is one of four national universities that President Rafael Correa says are needed to improve Ecuador’s higher education system. The others are Yachay Tech, in Imbabura Province, the University of the Arts in Guayaquil, and the National Educational University in Azoguez.
Located in Napo Province, a jungle area that the government says has been neglected by previous administrations, Ikiam is intended to provide new opportunities for residents as well as preserve the jungle culture.
Vice President Jorge Glas says Ikiam is fulfilling its mission. “We are paying a historic debt owed to this region. We are awakening hope and opening paths of opportunity for our youth. This day will be part of the luminous history of the Amazon,” he says.
Glas said that Ikiam, which means “jungle” in the Amazonian Shuar language, represents an important step forward not only for the region but also for Ecuador and the world. “We are in the middle of humanity’s most important biodiversity lab,” he said. He made note of the unique facilities the new university offers, with the 230-acre campus encompassing six distinct ecosystems. “This is indeed a living laboratory.”
Guillaume Long, Minister for Coordination of Knowledge and Human Talent, said that the new university will provide a place for Ecuadorians to investigate their own flora and fauna and that this will constitute an act of sovereignty. Many business interests, in particular the pharmaceutical industry, consider the Amazon a place of great untapped potential.
The new universities have been a bone of contention with many in the country’s academic community which contends that the funding should have gone to upgrade existing universities. “The universities that we have now could have provided the same services to the Amazon community that Ikiam is offering at a much lower cost. The money being spent there and at Yachay are a waste of valuable resources,” says San Francisco University professor Jorge Díaz. “They send the signal to the country that our universities are inferior and that our students are being poorly educated. I am not against them, per se. What I object to is that they were created to be system separate from the university we already have,” he said.
Correa responds that established universities are, in fact, substandard and that new ones, built from the ground up, employing large numbers of foreign faculty, are needed to transform the system. “We need to build an education system that compares with those in Europe and North America, not just with Latin America. To do this requires a departure from the status quo,” he said.
One of the four national universities, in Azogues, just north of Cuenca, is designed to train teachers and professors, from grade school to university graduate level.
Ikiam’s first class of 150 students came from 37 different cities. They will attend classes with 30 instructor-researchers. Carolina Arias, one of the students stated “We the pioneers of a project that looks to revolutionize the country.”
The government plans to construct more buildings and amenities at Ikiam, with residences, a library, a cultural center, restaurants in the works.