Colombia ploughs cash into PhDs

September 16, 2005

Colombia is making moves to promote postgraduate research by increasing the number of loans and scholarships for doctoral programmes despite a high undergraduate degree non-completion rate.

More than 9 billion pesos (£2.2 million) in grants was made available last month for graduate students and professionals who wanted to do PhDs.

Since 2002, nearly 80 billion pesos from government and World Bank funds have been invested in doctoral research and teacher training.

Currently, just 20 of the country's 105 universities offer a total of 67 doctorate programmes. The majority are offered at the National University, Colombia's largest state university.

A report based on a Ministry of Education survey blamed financial problems for a 50 per cent undergraduate dropout rate.

The new loans will help make postgraduate study more affordable for those who do complete first degrees. Marta Lucia Villegas, director of the Colombian Institute of Academic Loans and Technological Studies Abroad, the national agency responsible for allocating student loans and scholarships, said: "What is special about these loans is that the majority are non-repayable. In practice, they are scholarships, with each postgraduate research student receiving on average 80 million pesos."

Over the next three years, priority will go to students wishing to undertake research in the sciences, to tackle the acute national shortage of science doctorates.

Other government schemes provide loans to students wishing to take doctorate programmes abroad, with many requiring them to return to Colombia after completing PhDs. Less than 10 per cent of university teachers in Colombia have doctorates.

"The fact that few university teachers have doctorates obviously impedes high-quality research," said Galo Burbano, president of the National Association of Colombian Universities.

"If we could double this figure in the next few years, we would be making real progress," he said.

The uptake in doctoral programmes is low because few students are unable to finance their studies with a job elsewhere, as most such programmes require full-time study. Financial pressures on undergraduate students are equally great, the ministry report concludes.

Leonardo Monroy, a former economics student at the National University, said: "I got behind in my loan repayments and could no longer pay the course fees."

He was just six months away from completing his bachelors degree. "I tried to get work to pay for the university fees, but I found that my lectures clashed with my job hours," Mr Monroy said.

The Government study also found that students entering university lack study skills and struggle to reach the required academic standards. Dropout rates are highest among students studying medicine and engineering.

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