In defense of Costa Rica’s universities

January 6th, 2014 – According to a few pages in a long recent report on the state of education in Costa Rica, there is a growing mismatch between the fields that university students major in and the job opportunities available to them.  Specifically, more students are majoring in education and social sciences than can be absorbed into the job market, while jobs rooted in the basic sciences or requiring degrees in the health sciences and engineering go wanting for qualified applicants.  Costa Rica’s education critics are alarmed.

The critics can calm down, since they not only misunderstand the purpose of a university education, but also hack away at it with a machete instead of slicing it deftly with the necessary scalpel.

The purpose of a university education is not job-training.  This function falls to technical and professional schools, which while sometimes allied with universities, are fundamentally different enterprises.  Universities exist to foster ideas, assess values, and explore new areas of understanding.  Insofar as there is an overlap between the university’s mission and job-training, it is to encourage the kinds of critical thinking skills that enable graduates to adapt to a changing future economy, not to plug into the existing one.

And Costa Rica’s public universities do a pretty good job at this.  According to one international ranking, the country’s flagship university, the University of Costa Rica, holds the 59th place among all Latin American universities and the 31st place in “academic reputation.”  Although we all might wish that it would rank even higher, this isn’t bad for a country as small as Costa Rica.

True, the University of Costa Rica is graduating more education and social science majors than the labor market can absorb, but it’s also graduating a lot of lawyers that the labor market does absorb.  Can anyone seriously argue that Costa Rica’s economic competitiveness is improved by its gaggle of lawyers?  If not, finding a fit between graduates and jobs no more indicates that the university is fulfilling its mission than finding a mismatch between graduates and jobs demonstrates that it’s failing.

What’s really going on with higher education in Costa Rica is that 52 private universities are dominating a field in which there are only five selective public universities.

In some cases, these private universities are little more than storefront diploma mills peddling degrees to students who can’t qualify for admission to the public universities.  Accordingly, they are graduating a glut of education and social science majors, presumably because these majors require few capital outlays for things like labs or equipment, although also because these fields are often held to lower standards of academic rigor than others.

However, in other cases the private universities are filling the very career-preparation niches that the public universities properly deemphasize.  Private universities are now graduating more engineers than the public universities, for example, while they are also often offering superior programs in health sciences, technology, and other highly marketable fields.

Insofar as the mismatch between majors and job opportunities is an issue in Costa Rica, there are really only two areas of concern.

First, the accrediting standards for private universities need to be raised, since too many of them are turning out too many marginally qualified education and social science majors.  If the standards for awarding degrees in education and social science at the private universities were raised to the level of the public universities, there would be plenty of jobs for the graduates.

Second, funding for the basic sciences in the public universities needs to be increased.  No private university is going to emphasize the basic sciences, since they aren’t immediately profitable.  This leaves the public universities to shoulder this responsibility.  However, instruction in the basic sciences costs money, again for labs and equipment, so someone not beholden to quarterly profit/loss statements has to pay for it.

Besides these small, specific areas of concern, the public/private higher education mix in Costa Rica is working fairly well.  It would be a shame if the critics succeeded in forcing the public universities to retool as job-training centers.

Indeed, not many private universities offer a single course (much less a major) in anthropology, art history, or astronomy—to name only fields that begin with the first letter of the alphabet—since there is next to no market demand for them.  The fact that the public universities do should be applauded, not criticized.

Ironically, the very report on the state of education that the critics have seized to fault the universities was prepared by those with a sophisticated understanding of education and social sciences.  It would be nice if the critics understood these fields too.

Kenneth E. Morris

Kenneth E. Morris taught at various colleges and universities in the US before moving to Costa Rica in 2006, where he is now a permanent resident. His most recent book is Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation (Chicago Review Press).

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of Inside Costa Rica or its staff.

 

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