By Holly Else
“Academia is just like soccer: You recruit good players, you win,” said José Andrade on a recent visit to London, adding that he and his colleagues are “just about to recruit the Manchester United of South America” for a new university in Ecuador.
Professor Andrade is the academic secretary of Yachay University, a new research-intensive institution that will form the cornerstone of a “city of knowledge” being built from scratch in an Andean valley.
The 4,000-hectare site, near the small village of Urcuquí, an hour and a half from the capital Quito’s international airport, will eventually house the university, 13 specialized public research institutes, a technology park and industry.
With Yachay Tech, as it is known for short, the Ecuadorian government is hoping to introduce a research and innovation culture that will transform the country’s economy, which is currently based on the export of raw materials, primarily oil. Fearing that these natural resources could one day run out, President Rafael Correa, who took office in 2007, decided to switch direction to a knowledge-based economy. It is hoped that this will enable the development of an advanced manufacturing sector that can process local products and export high-value goods worldwide.
Mr Correa decided that the best way to achieve this was using higher education and plans emerged to forge Yachay Tech as the most successful research institution in Latin America. A focus on postgraduate education, not widely available in Ecuador, will help to deliver the high-level skills needed to power the changes.
Ares Rosakis, chair of the board of trustees at Yachay, said: “We are riding on the political will of the current government of Ecuador to change the nature of education in the country.” Yachay, with its strong focus on multidisciplinary and applied research, will become the first “international university in Latin America”, he added.
“I also see great academic excitement to create something…that will change the country, the region,” he explained.
Scholars on the side
As well as driving a shift in the economy, Yachay Tech will help reform higher education. Ecuador’s universities are mostly teaching-focused institutions and “have almost no expertise” in higher-level study, according to Professor Rosakis. Yachay Tech will provide postgraduate study for about 1,000 master’s and PhD students, who will eventually provide staff for other institutions. Currently, the majority of the country’s university professors do not hold a PhD and many teach in the evening as a “hobby” after finishing their day job as a doctor or engineer, for example, said Professor Andrade.
This “change in paradigm” should have happened years ago but only now is the country stable enough to support the shift, he explained.
“When you are running around to look for bread you do not have time to write [or] come up with mathematical theorems. Now the country has food, it is ready to make that switch to higher education,” he added.
The US $1.3 billion (£800 million) scheme is not without its critics, who ask why the government should put all the money into one university and not spread it around the other public universities in the country. Yachay’s rector Fernando Albericio’s retort is that sometimes it is better to build from scratch than to repair.
It is still early days for the institution, which currently comprises three historical buildings converted into classrooms, student dormitories and staff accommodation. Work has started to transform a former sugar mill into more classrooms and a library, with further buildings, including a research laboratory, under development.
The first class of about 170 students arrived in March to begin a “levelling program” designed to get them up to speed in several areas before starting their undergraduate degrees this autumn, with a further 250 students starting the pathway course this month.
As with the other public universities in Ecuador, there are no tuition costs and all students pay US$36 a month for housing on campus.
Yachay employs 65professors, up to 90 per cent of whom are from outside Ecuador. The hunt is now on for the chancellor, deans, heads of departments and professors who can help turn the Yachay vision into reality. In 20 years’ time, it is anticipated that faculty will number 240 tenured and tenure-track professors plus 60 lecturers.
The team understands that attracting higher education’s top players to a scheme sold on hope may have its challenges. But they are confident that Ecuador’s untapped “natural laboratories”, featuring biodiversity, oil and mining, can lure the talent.
“All of a sudden everybody is going to look at that little country and say ‘what the heck, they just recruited a team of stars from all over the world’,” said Professor Andrade.