Monday, 26 January 2015

Higher education, superior disarray

As a society, we tend to place a lot of value in higher education, especially in relation to the loftier institutions. On the face of it, this isn’t a bad thing. Generally, those who go through universities and the like go on to have much better lives, measured in monetary and influential terms anyway, than those who don’t.
Your standard university lecture hall; the education provided in some places is far from standard however.
Seats of excellence? (Photo from
However, that certain centres of education are seen as centres of ‘excellence’ is often self-fulfilling. This is even more acute in places where wealth and privilege, more than anything else, dictate a person’s chances of accessing third-level education. If you didn’t go to the right university, or worse still none at all, it’s unlikely you’ll be accepted into the movers-and-shakers group.

In many ways Colombia falls into that category.

People are judged, and hired, on where they were schooled more so than any proven ability. (Granted, it can be difficult for most young job seekers, whatever their background, to 'get the start' and prove their worth, but some don't even get a look in. And yes, this is something that happens across the globe.)

Yet, having both seen and heard stories of how some of Colombia's most prized universities conduct business, it would, or at least should, make you less than enamoured of them as leading pedagogical lights.

Take my recent flirtations with the human sciences department of one of these well-respected institutions in relation to teaching a specific course through English there. In not untypical fashion for these parts, it was all done in a rushed, last-minute manner. To make matters worse, it all happened during the annual four-week shutdown over Christmas and New Year.

So the initial talks were in mid-December, where I neither said yea nor nay to the job offer, as payment wasn't discussed and it wasn't even a given if the course was going to be a runner.

The next I hear from them, in the latter half of January less than one week before classes were due to begin, was to be told that my documents required to work for them were ready to be signed.
‘Hold on there now, we haven’t even discussed payment. Plus you’re expecting me to come up with a course plan from scratch in a few days, at my own expense and time?’ ‘Pretty much so, yes.’
Career choices.
Any which way but lose?

One of the many issues at play here seems to be the lack of communication between the departments of human resources and human sciences. The course was the responsibility of the latter; the former – as is standard practice anywhere – was in charge of deciphering pay based on experience as well as providing the associated contract.

It appeared that those at human resources expected me to toddle on down to the office and sign whatever they offered me (which, incidentally, was not very much, especially when you consider the exorbitant student fees the university in question and others here charge.)

It must also be remembered that I didn’t come looking for this job; it came my way via an intermediary and the university contacted me. Therefore, you might think, there would be room for flexibility and negotiation. But no.

Whatever about all of that, the most worrying aspect appears to be the thought, or lack thereof, given to the fee-paying students. You basically had a group of them signing up to a course before, in reality, it actually even existed. What kind of slipshod thing are they attending? Perhaps there were backup plans, but bearing in mind some previous practices by other such Colombian institutions, that’s not a given.

In defence, the fact that the course was, I believe, elective and not obligatory mitigates things somewhat. It must also be said, obviously, that the top universities in Colombia have produced, and continue to do so, some extremely talented professionals in all walks of life. You do want to see some tangible results for the money invested of course.

But that incidents such as the above happen, even if it was a one-off, is disconcerting. A little bit more forethought is all that’s really required.

Though how dare we mere mortals question the methods of these sacred cows? Forgive us, for we are not worthy.

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