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Public universities in Colombia have been virtually brought to a standstill by a dispute between the government and academic staff over changes to the way that university salaries are linked to scientific and academic achievement. While the government says the changes are needed to increase the effectiveness with which universities operate, its critics claim that they are primarily motivated by a desire to save money.

At present, 18 of the country’s 30 public universities are in so-called ‘permanent assembly’. This means that although professors and students are still attending classes, these are in general being used to discuss a new law introduced last year that changes the basis on which salaries are calculated.

Under the previous law, introduced in 1992, the salary of a university teacher or researcher was based on a cumulative points system. Under this, he or she was awarded points according to academic qualifications, research productivity (measured, for example, by the number of academic articles or books he or she had produced), and administrative experience.

But according to a study commissioned by the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology (Colciencias) in 1996, while some of country’s leading universities, such as the National University and the Universidad de Antioquia, have been assigning points and calculating salaries with care, teachers in other institutions, where the system was less rigorous, often receive higher salaries.

Hernán Jaramillo, deputy director of Colciencias at the time, says that academics in the less rigorous institutions can sometimes gain points for articles published in local newspapers, for printed programmes of their courses, or for publishing articles in their faculty publications with no external peer review.

Government officials argue that the new law is a significant improvement. For example, Jesús María Álvarez, director of higher education at the Ministry of Education, says that the scientific output of all academic staff in public universities will be measured using internationally accepted criteria of scientific productivity.

But unions representing the university staff are challenging the reforms. They argue that the new system is being introduced primarily to help meet the government’s economic difficulties by reducing public spending, and that any reduction in salaries will undermine the country’s scientific achievements.

Fabio Lozano, president of the National Federation of University teachers, for example, argues that “intellectual activity and knowledge production will be fatally wounded”.

There is general agreement that the previous law successfully encouraged teachers to increase their scientific output and improve their academic qualifications. However, Jaramillo argues that its implementation has left many universities in financial difficulties.

In contrast, Lozano, speaking on behalf of the university teachers, argues that the real motivation behind the new law is to reduce spending on universities by cutting salaries, a response to Colombia’s wider economic difficulties. “We do not consider that fiscal adjustment should be carried out through cuts on the weakest side, the workers, in order to pay off the country’s foreign debt ”.

Many researchers remain committed to the idea that strong public support for education, including university-based research, represents Colombia’s only chance of resolving the problems of violence and inequality that it faces.

Gloria Inés Sánchez, for example, a researcher at the University of Antioquia’s School of Medicine, says that disrupting this process will remove any chance of the country developing its full potential. “Education, science and technology through public universities are the only hope for poor people to have a better quality of life”.

In a meeting on 8 February, officials from the Ministry of Education and the directors of 24 public universities agreed to recommend revision of the new law by the beginning of June.

But Lozano says that academic staff members do not feel that university directors speak on their behalf. As a result, they intend to stay in ‘permanent assembly’, bringing public universities virtually to a halt.

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