Poor Reporting and Demonstrating for Higher Education

patch Pen singleOriginally published in the Fenton Patch newspaper in November 2011

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Several U.S. media publications reported it, but not a single one I read did a balanced report of what I walked into last Thursday. Of course that is nothing new when it comes to information regarding Colombia. Most places just rewrite what Reuters sends them. And I often wonder if there is actually a Reuters’ person witnessing what they are writing about. Again that would be no surprise if there wasn’t. The travel writer for Lonely Planet covering Colombia admitted to never even having been in the country despite writing dozens of travel articles about it.

The Taxi driver gave me a strange look when I told him the address. “The streets there are closed,” he said. “Student demonstration.”

“Ok, just get me close.” I told the driver.

The event had slipped my mind. The previous day Colombian news warned of the impending demonstration. I had asked many people what it was all about as the news gave vague and sketchy details. “The government is changing La Ley 30,” a woman told me. “That is the law concerning public education.”

Ten adults later, no one could tell me what the specific changes were. So, I asked the taxi driver. “They haven’t paid the teachers,” he replied.

Such is possible. My brother-in-law is a physician who works for a Colombian government hospital and he hasn’t been paid for a month now. They tell him, maybe January.

In a previous blog I mentioned how it takes years for an American to understand the Colombian culture. This is another one of those times. My relative is not getting paid because of the election of a new mayor. You see, an extensively investigated report showed that 90% of all Colombian towns are at high risk of corruption. Not a single community is at low risk. What happens is that outgoing mayors siphon off as much money as they can for themselves and their cronies. Frequently it is the money to pay employees. The incoming mayor is in the hole by one to four moths when he/she takes over. Remember that Colombia has the worst worker rights record in the world. So, if an employee makes too much trouble about not getting paid they will not have a job. Now add to it that the country has for over a decade led the world in murders of union members. Thirty percent of those murders were of members of the teachers union.

I mentally filed the taxi driver’s thought, but it did not make sense to me that was the problem.  Finding out what were the specific student problems intrigued me. About five blocks after exiting the taxi the demonstration loomed before me. Police stood at the ready, but seemed relaxed. Later some people charged the police with trying to invoke violence in the crowd. A reserved yet determined ambience existed among the young crowd. There was no aggressive behavior like seen previously with smaller demonstrations that some say were started by those with ties to terrorist organizations.

Missing from the American media writings were quotes from student leaders. Only the government side got mentioned. My curiosity and previous years as a reporter rose up. After exchanging greetings with a few students I met Javier. He exhibited leadership and knowledge of the situation. Citing what was mentioned in the American news, I asked him, “President Santos said he would withdraw the reform of La Ley 30 if the demonstrations were stopped. So why are you still demonstrating?”

“Two reasons,” he said. “You are not Colombian so you may not understand. But the government cannot be trusted to honor what they say.”

The student had a good point. I shared with him my experience already with the government on the very same type of thing but with a difference topic. I did what the government wanted first and they took advantage of the situation. End result, it cost me tens of thousands of dollars and almost my life. Later I heard that Colombian ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba (from the opposite party as the current ruling regime) warned the students that President Santos’ offer was a trick and not to fall for it.

Some other nearby students gathered around listening in. “So, if the government first drops the changes to Le Lay 30, then you will stop?” I asked.

“That’s the second thing,” Javier said. “That is only one part of what we want.”

“According to the Reuters article I read, it said the new changes will provide more money for education. Don’t you want that?”

Now a young lady named Margarita chimed in. “Read it carefully. The money will come from the students. The government is cutting out funding the public education. They just want to control it.  They are basically privatizing public education. Many students will no longer be able to afford it and more money will go to corruption.”

Again I had to agree with them. In my seven years in the country I have witnessed such events. “What do you want then?” I asked.

Now Javier spoke again. “Obviously not privatizing the public universities. The government is also going to cut student loans. We want those kept, and we also want better rates.”

This I knew something about from earlier conversations with friends whose children attend public university. The interest rates are so high and compounded such that students are paying three to five times the cost of the original loan.

“Better Education,” Margarita shouted at me. I had a pretty good idea of what she meant, but asked her to explain. “We are not prepared. They graduate us, but companies won’t hire us saying our education isn’t good enough.”

Yup, she hit the nail on the head there. I know of Colombian graduate engineers where companies in other countries start them at the bottom learning what they should have learned in school.  My own step-son graduated with a degree in marketing, but is seriously behind the knowledge of American students with the same piece of paper.

The students and I then talked about the study by the Inter-American Development Bank that states that Colombia, El Salvador and Peru are near the bottom for education. Another student now joined in. Rifling through his bag he produced a paper from International Conference on Education Reform in Latin America. The committee that met in Toronto, Canada pointed out that the problem was not access to education, but the quality of that education. The students are not learning enough.

In a discussion of the causes for the lack of quality, the students pointed out that the changes to the law would make things worse instead of better as well as leaving more students without access to higher education.

“We believe that at least 4% of the Gross National Product should be spent on public education,” a thin kid said as he lifted his mask that looked like the one worn by the man in the movie “V for Vendetta”.

The average in Latin America is 4.5%,” I said recalling what I had read a few days back.

“You can see that we are not asking for extreme concessions,” said Javier. But we do want more voice in the education system. The government keeps making decisions like these without consulting those knowledgeable in education.”

“We also want the micos eliminated,” said Margarita.

Micos, what are micos?” I asked. That was a new word for me.

No answer came immediately. Students all looked like they were trying to figure out how to explain it. Then like she frequently has to do in my continuing struggle to learn Spanish my wife spoke. “It is one of the words we use for ‘monkey,’ but in this case it means those things written into a law that can go one way or the other.”

“You mean subjective things like if deemed necessary then something will happen?” I said.

“Yes,” one of the students replied. “While they sound like they are for the good of the people the government uses them to benefit only themselves.”

I thanked the students for their time but decided it was time to talk to get the take on all of this from a trusted source. Over coffee I posed my question to a person who had spent over 30 years in the government working in the offices of Senators and Congress members. If anyone knew what was going on, she did. “What are the changes in the law about?” I asked.

“Well for one thing it will eliminate the financial assistance for students from families in lower estrados (low income) making it more difficult, if not impossible, for them to afford higher education. Instead of the government helping to finance the school they will teat the money as a loan that the student has ten years to pay back at a high interest rate.”

“Sounds like a little corruption to me,” I said.

My coffee drinking friend raised both her hands above her head, spread them wide and said, “No, grande.”

“The students I spoke with mentioned there were many micos in the changes.”

“More like a gorilla,” she replied.

Ok, American media getting the news in Colombia wrong is nothing new. My thoughts are with Michigan though. In the same week as the Colombian demonstrations, students also hit the streets in Chile and England to protest high tuition rates. According to the Michigan League for Human Services, while income in Michigan has sharply declined over the last several years, tuition costs have risen significantly. Our average income is below the national average, while our public school tuition rates are above the average for the nation. Is it possible that if things do not change that demonstrations are in the cards for Michigan students?

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