War-torn country looks to universities to stop strife

April 26, 2002

Colombians are pinning their hopes on large-scale higher education improvements as the key to ending the country's 38-year civil conflict, a pre-election survey has revealed.

The survey was organised by the Bogot regional authorities, two independent foundations and the national daily El Tiempo .

"More public universities accessible to all" averaged 9 in a 1-10 point system, the highest priority, ahead of "reinforcing the national army" (6.6) and "dialogue with the guerrillas" (4.9).

To meet public demands, the top six candidates for the presidential elections on May 26 have pledged to raise the education budget from the present 4.4 per cent of gross national product to between 5.4 and 8 per cent.

Liberal Party dissident glvaro Uribe Vélez, the current favourite with an estimated 25 per cent lead over his closest competitor, Hor cio Serpa, said he would invest 50 per cent of all revenue from the ongoing national anti-corruption campaign in higher education.

Mr Uribe Vélez plans to build 400 lecture rooms, increase undergraduate grants and introduce economic incentives for postgraduates.

Since president Andrés Pastrana was elected four years ago, the number of killings has continued to rise steadily while kidnappings and numbers of paramilitary and guerrilla recruits have almost doubled.

Some 50 university staff and students have been murdered in the same period. Last year alone, more than 5,000, mainly civilians, were killed for political reasons, more than 300 were victims of "forced disappearances" and more than 200,000 were forcibly displaced.

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