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A Matter of Degrees

Since the liberalization of the Peruvian university system in 1996, Peru has seen two decades of rapid growth in higher education, with a proliferation of private universities across the country. From 2000, to 2012, the number of students in higher education doubled from 426,000 to 865,000, with more than 60% of those students attending private universities. As of 2014, 80 of the country’s 139 universities are private.

With this growth, the country has faced challenges in regulating the quality of the newer private universities, and an increasing number of small private for-profit institutions, colloquially called “universidades chichi,” or “worthless universities” have sprung up to take advantage of tax incentives for investing in the education sector. These universities have made headlines in Peru for their poor facilities, and low educational standards, and a number have even faced student strikes or protests.

A recently passed reform, called the Ley Universitaria or University Law, is aiming to rectify the situation by implementing new standards and exercising increased oversight for all universities, public and private. The greatest change being implemented by the law is the creation of the Superintedencia Nacional de Educación Universitaria (SUNEDU — the National Superintendent for University Education) as the new governing body for the Peruvian education system. The SUNEDU will replace the previous governing body, Asemblia Nacional de Rectores (ANR). While the ANR was an independent organization that brought together the rectors of every Peruvian university, the SUNEDU executive committee is appointed in a selection process overseen by the Ministry of Education. It consists of five academic staff chosen by an ad hoc selection committee and two members who directly represent the Ministry of Education and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia. The hope is that more direct government involvement in universities will improve quality standards. It aims to recover the government’s role of supervising the quality of higher education in Peru, while maintaining universities’ independence in their internal regulation.

The new institution will have the ability to approve or deny the accreditation of new universities and investigate and penalize existing universities for poor teaching standards or shoddy infrastructure. Currently, there are 63 private universities operating in Peru with “pending” accreditation, which the SUNEDU has begun investigating.

The law also introduced other reforms, requiring universities to renew their accreditation with SENEDU. First bachelor’s degrees are no longer granted “automatically”. In order to obtain a bachelor’s degree, students must now pass all the courses, carry out a research project, and learn a foreign language, giving preference to English. Second, universities must employ at least 25% full-time professors and every professor must have a Master’s degree in order to teach at an undergraduate level. In order to teach at PhD level, a doctorate degree is required. At this moment, approximately 75% of the professors in Peru hold a Master’s degree.

The law has also standardized the rules for electing governing bodies of universities. Every member of the university is able to participate in the elections of the rector. The professors will hold two thirds of the votes, while students hold the remaining third. The law also promotes participation; the elections are not valid unless at least 60% of professors and 40% of students participate.

The reforms have drawn criticism from some, who argue that the creation of the SUNEDU will limit the autonomy of universities, which is an important element of teaching quality. However, others believe that the reforms are necessary to improve Peru’s higher education system, which has not been ranked as highly as those of its neighbors. Overall, according to a series of opinion polls, just over half of Peruvians see the reforms as a positive step forward for the education system.

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