Clear heads in the clouds

Up in the Andes is a university worth emulating, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

April 10, 2008

In case the guerrillas kidnap you," my students said, "you had better leave us work for the rest of the semester." I hated to disappoint them, but I explained that I was bound for Bogota, whereas the Farc, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, lurk in little-populated forests to produce their cocaine. Such, however, is Colombia's reputation for danger that the Universidad de los Andes, where I was headed, has but a handful of foreign students.

This is a pity, because Los Andes, I found, is an exemplary university, from which British academic top brass could learn a lot. In some ways my visit to Bogota was disappointing. The clouds were so low that I could not see the mountain tops, though I was lodged on their slopes. Most of the time, rain veiled the charm of the old colonial city, with its precipitate streets, crammed life, and grandiose plazas. The ceiling of my hotel room caved in under the weight of an unseasonal storm. American Airlines cancelled my outward flight and routed me home via Jamaica because of engine trouble, reducing me to neurotic exhaustion on both flights. Mr Pooter or Mr Bean could hardly have been more accident-prone or disaster-struck without actually encountering the Farc.

The pleasure I took in seeing the Universidad de los Andes, however, outweighed all the frustrations. It is a brilliant, beautiful place, which winds and clambers over and around Simon Bolivar's old family hacienda on the heights above the city's heart. Historic buildings have been preserved, and new ones erected with uninhibited daring. The combination is quite a rarity, in my experience, for a university campus: harmonious without contrivance, intimate but exciting. The irrepressible fertility of Bogota fills every space with gardens, and every cranny with plants.

The university is, by general acclaim, Colombia's best, and although a few members of the elite go to US colleges, it educates and renews a disproportionate share of the upper class of Bogota. In recent years, fundraising for scholarships has made it possible to bring in students from all strata of society. Graduates are prominent in public service.

The founders were in their twenties when they launched the university in 1948. Having studied in the US, they realised that Colombia's existing universities were irreformable without competition from a radical alternative. The country needed higher education that was broad, flexible and - above all - non-partisan. To make people listen, to raise funds, to get reputable professors to work for them and to persuade a renowned senior intellectual to head the fledgeling institution: these were heroic achievements in themselves. They started with 76 students. Now, with nearly 12,000 undergraduates and nearly 3,000 graduate students, the university still resembles a small republic of letters, similar in size and structure to a US college with a modest research-university add-on.

But what really makes it remarkable is that it pursues an honourable and difficult vocation: to enrich professional education with humanistic values.

Society needs professionals. Humanity needs humanists. In Colombia - as in other countries striving to escape classification as "developing" - vocational priorities predominate. People want their children trained as well as educated. The nation's shopping list of graduates features engineers and architects to build the infrastructure, scientists and designers to generate exploitable ideas, business graduates to turn those ideas into wealth, health specialists to spend it, managers to improve efficiency, teachers to lift the workforce into modernity. Demand for lawyers, of course, keeps pace, and the law has always been a vocation conferring high prestige in the Hispanic world.

Other universities buckle before the humdrum demand for saleable qualifications. Los Andes demands a broad approach from students. Programmes are structured to encourage interdisciplinarity. Students focused on vocational subjects typically do a second major or a minor in a humane discipline. At graduation ceremonies, you can hear the effects, as members of the choir acclaim with shouts of triumph the lawyers, engineers and physicians who have been their companions in music classes. The university's mission statement emphasises critical intelligence and ethical conduct as the aims of an education at Los Andes. Graduates swear to use their talents in the service of others. And - another point British universities could imitate with advantage - the degrees count in the marketplace, not just because employers can rely on an Andes graduate for rounded learning, but also because the university resolutely resists grade inflation. Despite the selectivity of the entrance requirements, only two students this year graduated summa cum laude, and other distinctions are conferred with corresponding discrimination.

As British universities succumb to the demand for vocational degrees, they need to adjust. The intense specialisation Britain has historically demanded was fine in the old days, when Oxford and Cambridge were unique seminaries, where only the already well educated were admitted. Maybe a classicist can spend all his time on Classics and emerge uncramped. That can't happen if an accountant spends all his time on accounting, or a management studies graduate knows nothing except management studies. A visit to Los Andes would be an ideal education for European education functionaries and vice-chancellors. Even if the clouds are low and the rain thick, they will stand on the mountainsides and see further than before.

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