Following months of acrimonious debate, the Ecuadorean congress on Wednesday narrowly approved a controversial new higher-education law, according to Ecuadorean news reports. The legislation seeks to increase regulation of universities while bringing their programs in line with the country's development needs, but it doesn't go as far as President Rafael Correa had wanted.
Still, its opponents, who include the rectors of many of the country's more than 70 institutions of higher education, fear the new law will strip away hard-won university autonomy.
The original bill would have empowered President Correa, a former economics professor, to name the heads of a newly created National Council for Higher Education, a semi-autonomous body that would oversee university administration and academics. His party, however, controls just 54 of the National Assembly's 124 seats, and it had to make concessions to secure the necessary votes. Under the approved law, the directors of the council would be chosen jointly by the president and university rectors.
There was speculation on Wednesday that Mr. Correa might veto the revised law and put some of the changes he wanted into place through government austerity measures.
The 'Needs of National Development'
The congressional vote was delayed several times in recent weeks amid street protests by university rectors and students, who accuse Mr. Correa of seeking to bring the universities under government control as part of a bid to install a socialist state in Ecuador.
Mr. Correa, a self-styled "socialist revolutionary" and a friend of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, denies he is trying to curb university autonomy. However, he argues that universities need to be held more accountable and to play a more active role in promoting development in Ecuador, one of the region's poorest countries.
Among its provisions, the new law states that all new universities and university majors must conform to "the needs of national development," according to a version of the bill posted online in late July. It also seeks to bring higher education in line with the needs of Ecuador's indigenous minority, whose right to "multicultural education" is enshrined in the new constitution approved in 2008. It's not clear whether those provisions were altered in the final bill. (A copy of the final legislation was not available on Wednesday, and university rectors were not immediately available for comment.)
Private institutions of higher education would be required to get approval from the national council before setting tuition costs and to reserve 15 percent of their places for scholarship students. However, in a concession won following intense lobbying by private universities, the share of full scholarships was reduced to 5 percent, with 10 percent receiving partial scholarships.
Another concession would postpone the deadline by which all university rectors and researchers must hold doctoral degrees, although it wasn't clear for how long.
Ecuador has a severe shortage of Ph.D.'s; its first doctoral programs were founded following the previous higher-education law in 2000. The first doctoral candidates have yet to graduate, according to José Barbosa Corbacho, president of the Private Technical University of Loja, a Roman Catholic institution in the country's southeast. Under the new legislation, he said, institutions such as his will be required to pay to send professors and staff members abroad to earn Ph.D.'s.