Friday, April 15, 2011

Colombia doesn't help itself sometimes

Over the past few decades Colombia has had its fair share of very well documented problems regarding drugs, poverty, violent crime and guerilla warfare to name just a few issues, but I generally try and use this blog to focus on the more positive or amusing aspects of life in this country.  I sort of feel a responsibility to tell the world (or my limited blog audience!) about this beautiful place and all the things it has to offer to someone like me, a young man looking for a different adventure to the standard graduate life back home.  However, every now and again, you hear a story of such preposterous proportions that just makes you shake your head and wonder why you bother.

This is the current situation at the university where I worked last year.  La Universidad Santiago de Cali is fairly typical of many in South America, quite well respected academically, but lacking in terms of resources for staff and students, even compared to other universities in Cali.  Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed my time there, a fairly cushy job that was relatively well paid and gave me valuable teaching experience, which is now very relevant for my plans to work in a school next year.  However, the university is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal that is affecting both staff and students a like.

USACA - "We're fighting"
It came to light a few months ago that the university was in "financial difficulties," this in spite of having 14,000 students who either fund their own courses or receive government support.  The university has unpaid tax bills, hasn't paid staff health insurance payments since late 2010, has reduced salaries and restricted the amount of hours teachers can teach, all because of this financial crisis.  And the reason behind this?  Not falling student numbers, not reduced government subsidies like in England (this is a private university), but pure and simple, corruption.

It turns out the Rector and his close group of cronies were swindling huge amounts of money out of the university every month, some say amounts that even supersede what the Colombian President earns which is $18 million (pesos) a month, about £6,000.  This is in a university where some students pay up to $7 million a semester, a substantial sum no matter how you look at it.  I'm not sure how long this has been going on, but the now ex-Rector had been in charge since 2001 and the fact the university is in such a precarious position financially, where teachers are only receiving half of what they are owed, indicates it must have been happening for a substantial amount of time.  Other stories such as university credit cards racking up millions of pesos of unaccounted for spending and all expenses paid trips abroad all contribute to this staggering abuse of university funds.

"Where's our money gone?"
Of course, there are consequences to all this.  As I said, teachers have had to suffer with cuts in pay and now delays in even getting that, and this feeds through to the main teaching activities, with some refusing to give classes, so students who have paid their semester fees are suffering.  It's a vicious circle that threatens the very existence of a significant educational institution, it'll be difficult to attract new students in such a volatile and uncertain climate.  There were rumours of government intervention, but the university constitution is fairly rigid on these things from what I understand, and that would also go against the principles of the proposed "Ley 30" educational reforms, which intends to bring in more private, rather than public, funds to higher education.

But, I go back to the title of this post.  Why is a university in such dire straits?  Is it because of the cocaine trade, or because of, it's just an institutionalised system of corruption which has existed in a country for generations.  On Transparency International's Corruption Map Colombia comes out at 3.5 on a scale of 0-10, admittedly better than either of its neighbours, Venezuela (2) and Ecuador (2.5), but no where near the continental leaders of Chile (7.2) and Uruguay (6.9).

As a foreigner living abroad, you're very aware that you're representing your country every time you step out the door and interact with people in the street, whether you like it or not.  And on the contrary, every Colombian is representing their country when they interact with me.  Now on the most part, that is with the wonderful, outgoing and joyful nature that just about everyone here has in abundance, but unfortunately, if you're a foreigner who´s a teacher at a university and are not receiving your salary because of financial problems that have nothing to do with you, it doesn't help the reputation of the country abroad at all, quite the opposite in fact.

In other news, a man stabbed his girlfriend to death two weeks ago at 7am on a Saturday morning whilst on the MIO metro bus, after an argument.  Now,'re a truly beautiful country with lots to offer, but how can we try and sell this country to the world as a place to come, visit and enjoy when this sort of stuff goes on?