Initial Impressions of Bolivian Education

Yesterday I interviewed someone from a local educational NGO in Cochabamba who offered excellent insight into the current problems occurring with Bolivian education. I have spoken informally with several Bolivians already, read several academic papers written about educational policy, and reviewed statistics. Bolivia surprisingly has a very high rate of literacy, in my opinion, with almost 100% of the youth being able to read and write. Schooling is free at the primary, secondary and university levels. In the past year the Bolivians government implemented a new law requiring students to become plurilingual. What this means is that students whose mother tongue is Spanish, must be taught Spanish, a local indigenous language such as Quechua or Aymara, depending on the region where they live. The third language must be a foreign language, such as English. I’ve found this a good sign since very few Bolivians have a solid command of English and I believe it to be a necessity in our ever-increasing globalized societies. The government is implementing this plurilingual policy step-by-step to allow students and schools to gradually offer quality education. Also, it is now obligatory to finish primary and secondary school in all of Bolivia.

The problem is that in the rural areas, where a large portion of the population lives and is predominantly indigenous and there is a lack of qualified English teachers. In some places there are no English teachers at all and a lack of school supplies. Another problem is that many indigenous students will quit attending school after the 4th or 5th grade to help their families, which primarily are farmers. Some families cannot afford to have their children attend school and instead need their help to provide for the families. Furthermore, some families and students don’t see a need to continue attending school beyond the primary level. Why? They don’t see the opportunities for future jobs. While unemployment is moderate in Bolivia, many skilled workers with university degrees cannot find jobs. Hence, they are underemployed. Many graduates work in the informal sector and taxi drivers, running food stands in the street and some go on to start businesses, sell fruits and vegetables in the street, or work part-time. Another problem that has existed in the universities is discrimination against indigenous students in the classroom. Because of the low standards of education in rural areas, many indigenous students cannot pass the entrance exams to get into the universities. One remedy the government has implemented is a pre-university training program that helps prepare students to pass the university entrance exams. But where the program falls short is there is no continued assistance once the students are accepted into a university. Currently, statistics show that only 20% of students coming from rural areas actually graduate.

What this says to me is the government is still not making education a high enough priority. What it also tells me is that it is not doing enough to create jobs for skilled laborers. When many students see a university education as a waste of time for their future career, even when it is FREE, and when many graduates are greatly underemployed, this spells for a current and future economic weakness. Next week I have a meeting with the World Bank and am attempting to set up meetings with the Bolivian government, UNICEF, UNDP and Inter-American Development Bank to learn more about the current projects and the needs of the Bolivian people. The educational situation in Bolivia is appearing very complex, perhaps more complex than I initially thought.

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