Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Higher Education in Peru

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Of the top universities in Latin America, five countries dominate the top 30 schools: Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. Further, according to the recent survey by the University of Queensland in Australia, Peru’s Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Peru came in 34th place. What are these five countries doing right that other countries in Latin America are not when it comes to higher education? Specifically, what is Peru doing wrong?

Looking at certain economic and education indicators, there is not a clear trend or relationship between the numbers of schools in the top 30 and the indicators. However, there does seem to be some relationship between the percentage of GDP allocated toward education and the top five countries. Each country in the top-30 spends 4 to 5 percent of its GDP on education; in Peru, it is only 2.7 percent. Brazil spends the most on education as a percentage of GDP and has the most number of schools (nine) in the top 30 ranking. Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo also holds the number one spot.

Peru spends nearly half as less on education spending than the other five countries. This does not necessarily say much about whether education spending correlates with the quality of higher education because we do not know how much of the spending is allocated toward higher education. Moreover, most of the schools on the survey are private schools. But it may indicate that the higher levels of funding mean that students may be better prepared when they enter a university or college, and therefore perform better in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico.

Another interesting point is that Colombia appears to be an anomaly because it has a very high percentage of its population under the poverty line (46 percent) and a high percentage of its population unemployed (11.8 percent). Yet, it boasts four schools in the top 30 ranking. This might indicate very high stratification in terms of education between the elite in the country and the poor. Peru, with similar problems as Colombia, however does not have schools in the top tier of the ranking. Again, the only difference between Peru and the other countries appears to be the percentage of spending on education.

Why might Peru be lacking in the quality of its higher education? For that, it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at the country’s higher education system. Peru has 78 universities catering to more than 500,000 students. In the year 1900, university enrollment totaled only 1,000 students; by 1970 that number had risen to 128,000.

In fact, the period from 1960 to the present reflects enormous growth in the higher education system. The higher education student population doubled between 1961 and 1965. By 1970 the number of universities had been increased to 34, with an increase to 51 in 1990. Much of this growth came initially in Lima in the form of private universities but, under the demands of a greatly increased population of secondary graduates, the government began to found new institutions in provincial cities. The Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (UNAM) holds the title as the state university with the most students (25,201), while the Universidad de San Martin de Porres is the private university with the most students (31,740).

Five types of higher education facilities serve the nation. The public university is a government-funded comprehensive institution, and UNAM is the most prominent in this group. A second category is the private university, which receives funding from nonprofit sources or strictly from student tuition; an example here is the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. A third category, the technical higher institute, offers specialized instruction in one or more technologies such as agriculture or engineering. The fourth category is the higher pedagogical institute, which is a teacher training facility, and the last type of institution is the higher postgraduate center—a general higher education institution that might be compared with a university branch facility. The Ministry of Education oversees the licensing of the technical institutes and other centers of higher education.

The criteria for admission into a university are very stringent and require various exams. Admission to vocational training typically requires the student to hold at least a high school diploma. For admission to university level studies, the certificado de educación secundaria común completa is required, along with an entrance exam. In total, the difficulty of the exams and the subpar preparation mean that nearly 50 percent of students fail these examinations each year.

This complicated system—and tough admission process—means that most young people in Peru do not attend higher education. In fact, most Peruvians are not qualified to attend institutions of higher learning.

And while access to primary and secondary schooling does not appear to a problem in Peru, the quality of such schools is problematic. The secondary schools do not train students to be able to pass an entrance exam into a university, and thus many must take pre-university classes. The process gets very expensive. This might explain the proliferation of technical schools, many of which do not have accreditation from the Ministry of Education.

The result is that only a very small, elite percentage of the population is able to attend an institution of higher education. As a result, Peru is confronted with both quality and access as problems at the higher education level.

As Peru looks forward, the overall lesson is that Peru should increase the percentage of GDP dedicated to education for both the primary and secondary as well as the tertiary level. For Peru to be competitive in the future, we must take a hard look at the examples of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. Their places in the top 30 mean that something different must be done for Peru to get on track with its neighbors’ success.

*Sabrina Karim is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and is currently living in Lima, Peru as part of a Fulbright Fellowship.


Sabrina Karim was a 2010 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Peru, affiliated with Grupo de Análisis para Desarrollo (GRADE). She specializes in issues related to security, gender, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency.  She is currently a PhD candidate in political science at Emory University. 

Tags: Education, Peru
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