Before setting off to Yachay, we sat over breakfast chatting with our engaging host, Carlos. He was part of one of the first recent autonomous groups who had traveled to Guayaquil to survey and evaluate universities according to one of the new national regulations on education. These included close supervisions of education at every level throughout Ecuador. For universities, the government established an “A” to “D” grading system, since the university system in Ecuador had been broken for many years. I saw this these past few weeks, as I listened to stories of students paying bribes for their degrees, repeating as many years as they wanted, and other stories of poor selection processes and low retention rates.
Carlos found the universities in Guayaquil extremely resistant to change, which made the surveying process difficult for him: Universities hid information here and there to such an extent that he decided to drop out from the next round of evaluations. Universities, when evaluated with a “D” grade, were forced to close. Many of these corrupted universities had actually become businesses, as previously, a “university” could be classified as any small, random building in the city.
Keeping these thoughts in mind, we went on an official visit to Yachay, where, as a research and camera team, we were very well received. We were even provided with a personal tour by Alberto Peralta, the Director of Communications for Yachay. To me, the university looked like Stanford; reflecting its exquisite Spanish-style architecture, sunny weather, and surrounding immense mountains. Scheduled to be completed in 2017, the amount of planning and spending that has so far gone into building this free public university city is impressive. All of the professors (half from Ecuador and half from abroad) have PhDs, and almost all of the students come from public schools throughout most of the provinces in Ecuador. University officials understand the gap between Ecuador’s secondary education systems and the rigor of Yachay, so new students complete a 20 week leveling course in order to all be at the same level before beginning classes. And unlike most universities in Ecuador, students at Yachay will live in charming on-campus houses, renovated from previous farms in the area.
The campus is still very much under construction, but it is rapidly growing with a sense of urgency and size in both size and infrastructure. While only time will reveal how much of a success this university will become, it is wonderful to see the government’s prioritization of science and technology–especially in cutting-edge fields such as nanoscience, petrochemical, and energy, which Ecuador has previously not paid much attention to.
From conversations with a couple of students, we learned that these new fields were what sparked interest and attracted many of the most accomplished students throughout Ecuador to Yachay. While the vision for this university may seem overly ambitious, who are we to say that Ecuador will not be able to accomplish it in due time? Developing countries in Latin American need more first-class universities that can attract some of the best minds in the world not only because they are plentiful with unique and valuable resources, but also because they will contribute to a long deserved social, political and economic progression.