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Improving avenues towards post-secondary and higher education for indigenous people

Considering the sheer diversity of indigenous peoples and languages in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and Nicaragua, with 22 different languages spoken among the majority (60 percent) Mayan population in Guatemala alone, it seems logical that terms like multiethnic, multilingual and culturally pluralistic would be used to describe their national compositions.

However, it wasn’t until recent decades that the cultural and ethnic realities of these and many other Latin American countries were officially reflected in their constitutions and in national political discourse. Following suit, public policies of intercultural bilingual education (IBE) were adopted throughout the region, with 18 Latin American countries having instituted IBE as of 2004.

Barriers to access endure despite advances

Despite these advances, it remains clear that indigenous communities continue to struggle against deeply rooted historical patterns of discrimination, socioeconomic inequality and marginalization, all of which pose significant barriers to accessing and succeeding in the educational system, especially when it comes to high school education and beyond. 

In light of this scenario, the recent IDB study "Access of Indigenous Peoples to Post-Secondary, Vocational, Technical and University Education" analyzes the demand for and access to such schools for indigenous people in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and Nicaragua, through conducting field research, interviews and focus groups with indigenous students and organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), teachers, local business leaders, community elders and government officials.

According to the study, while amounts of schooling are disturbingly low across the board in Guatemala, indigenous people still receive about half as much schooling as the non-indigenous population (an average of 2.5 and 5.7 years, respectively). A similar educational attainment pattern holds true for indigenous people in Ecuador, who complete 3 years on average compared to 7 for the non-indigenous, and also exhibit a strikingly high illiteracy rate of 28 percent compared to the national rate of 9 percent.

Similarly, according to the last Ecuadorian census, while about 31 percent of indigenous students have completed primary school, compared to 60 percent of those designating themselves as  “afro-descendents,” 68 percent of “mestizos” and almost 80 percent of “whites,” only about 5 percent have completed high school, in contrast to 15 percent of “afro-descendents,” 22 percent of “mestizos” and 35 percent of “whites.”

Clearly, the transition between primary and high school is marked by high attrition rates across the board, with similar patterns echoed throughout Latin America, but the outcomes for indigenous people are visibly worse than those for other groups. 

As might be expected, the number of indigenous students in post-secondary and higher education is also low, due overwhelmingly to financial constraints, coupled with the draw of the labor market, the paucity of post-secondary schools and universities in rural areas and poor-quality primary and secondary schools, a factor which leaves students both ill-prepared and unmotivated to continue studying.

Further compounding these obstacles is the lack of cultural relevancy in post-secondary and higher education for many indigenous students. Despite the redefinition of educational systems as intercultural-bilingual, this classification mainly pertains to primary and secondary schools, not to post-secondary or technical schools or universities. In fact, there is no legislation regarding post-secondary education policy for indigenous people in any of the four countries studied.

Therefore, for those indigenous students reaching higher rungs on the ladder of educational attainment, culturally appropriate, bilingual education is hard to come by.

Additionally, students who do make the transition from backgrounds in IBE to traditional post-secondary schools and universities often experience culture shock, as many have to relocate to predominately urban areas where the schools are located, becoming separated from their communities and cultural support systems in the process. This sense of cultural disconnect surely plays an important role in the propensity of indigenous students to drop out of school once having reached these higher educational levels.

Connections to the labor market

Equally important to cultural relevancy is enhancing the pertinence of post-secondary and higher education programs to the labor market, or the economic realities of indigenous communities.

According to the study, while the participation of indigenous communities in the labor market has increased in general in recent years, the presence of individuals from these communities as experts and professionals is still greatly limited. Echoing this trend, study participants in all four countries emphasized the need to improve the professional development of indigenous students in post-secondary education not only so that they can secure decent jobs in the local labor market upon graduation, but also so that they can contribute to local economic and social development by starting their own businesses, serving as public officials or working as professionals in the provision of services such as health and education.

After all, it is one thing to educate indigenous students in urban areas, preparing them for jobs within the city milieu, but it is wholly another to tailor the degrees and certificates offered to the needs of local communities. Whether through offering concentrations in ethno-education, community development, traditional medicine, natural resource management, human rights, indigenous law or ethno-tourism, or more traditional majors in accounting, engineering and economics, the study concludes that it is paramount that the focuses offered align with local realities.

This way, while students may have to leave their communities to complete their education, those that wish to return will be able to do so more effectively, and hopefully, with greater impact.

Existing educational alternatives

Despite the myriad challenges facing indigenous people in reaching higher educational levels, innovative steps are being taken to improve accessibility and permanency, most notably in Nicaragua. Two pioneering examples of existing Nicaraguan universities that have incorporated programs tailored towards indigenous communities into their curriculums are the Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN) and Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU).

However, URUCCAN is the only university in the country that has enrollment figures disaggregated by ethnicity, with rates for indigenous students increasing from 58 to 751 from 1995 to 2005 (total enrollment for 2004 was around 4,400 students); the majority of these indigenous students are Miskitus.

Both schools were designated as multiethnic, “community universities” in the early 1990s and take a holistic approach to education by offering bilingual, culturally relevant university degrees, such as indigenous law and traditional medicine, in addition to programs in leadership, literacy and community organization for adults without formal education. They have also developed programs in local high schools to encourage student permanency and have organized intercultural teacher training programs.
Additionally, an integral component of this community-driven approach to education is promoting the creation of intermediary professional technical degrees that can help ease the transition between high school and university, in terms both of better preparing students for higher education, and of giving them credit for the technical courses completed to use towards a related university degree.

This approach falls in line with one of the main policy recommendations voiced by indigenous communities included in the study, for the vast majority of universities don’t recognize studies completed in technical schools, thus making the jump between technical and university levels more difficult.

URUCCAN is also home to the Institute of Traditional Medicine and Community Development, an initiative that promotes the value of local medicinal knowledge in public health services. The Institute trains nurses and doctors in traditional therapies and organizes exchanges between Western and traditional practitioners to discuss local health issues and courses of action.

Avenues for future action
In addition to bringing post-secondary schools and universities physically closer to indigenous communities, the study also advocates improving mentoring services for indigenous students attending institutions outside of their communities as a way to help them adjust to their new surroundings and maintain cultural ties.

Similarly, strengthening links between high schools, post-secondary schools and universities, as exemplified by URUCCAN, and making more scholarships available, are seen as steps towards improving access to further education for indigenous students.

Additionally, concerted efforts to collect data related to indigenous educational participation are also needed, as they can provide useful information for policymakers and serve as a baseline to measure future progress.

Of course, improving access to post-secondary education needs to be accompanied by synchronized efforts to improve the quality of primary and secondary schools, in terms both of teacher quality and of expanding coverage of IBE schools in rural areas.

In the end, in a truly multiethnic society, it seems that forms of intercultural teaching should be incorporated into all levels of education, for all students, not just for indigenous people. This way, teaching would be reflective of both worlds, providing a more comprehensive learning environment for students.