Angel Sotomayor is the first person in his family to attend university.
In his last year of a Business program at University of Guayaquil, he is among the thousands of students who stand to be significantly impacted by the outcome of the April 2 election, and the competing visions for education in the country.
The activist says while many student leaders are anxious about what may happen, most of his peers don’t grasp what’s at stake.
“Almost every day I hear 'whoever wins, won’t pay my University' — which drives me crazy,” Sotomayor says, emphasizing he and other students at public universities don’t pay tuition. “Not everyone thinks like this, but few are aware (of the implications) and anxious for the results.”
The run-off in Ecuador’s presidential election has turned into a tight and heated contest between accessibility advocate and former Vice President Lenin Moreno representing the governing PAIS Alliance, and millionaire banker Guillermo Lasso led by his CREO movement. While Moreno represents a continuity of the policies that have seen increased state intervention — and investment — into areas like education and health, Lasso has been promoting a rollback of the public sector and a push for greater privatization.
For Rene Ramirez, head of the Secretariat of Higher Education, Science and Technology, or SENESCYT, Lasso’s program would not only mean a change in policy but a change in paradigm.
“What (Lasso) proposes as politics, as a philosophy of model of society, is to move to a mercantile process which completely privatizes what we consider social rights — health, education, social security, higher education,” Ramirez told teleSUR.
Ramirez, who prior to leading the higher education secretariat was the lead on the country’s two, five-year plans for “Good Living,” said that the proposal from the right-wing opposition leader would be a step backwards, returning Ecuador’s education system to a state of disparity and disorganization, “where eight out of 10 students entering university belonged to the richest 20 percent.”
Since the start of President Rafael Correa’s "Citizen’s Revolution," the country's education figures in terms of access and performance have increased dramatically.
Total enrollment in higher education has increased by 11 percent since 2006, with representation from the poorest 40 percent of Ecuadoreans climbing 101 percent. Within this, enrollment from Indigenous nationalities and Afro-Ecuadoreans doubled, and seven out of 10 current university students are the first from their families to obtain a university education.
Changes made to Ecuador’s education system have also been lauded by the U.N. body dealing with education, UNESCO, which called it one of the most important integral reforms in the region at a regional meeting in late 2016.
Yet, despite the impressive statistics on increasing enrollment and participation from historically marginalized sectors, as well as the significantly increased salaries for teachers, the organization of education has been heavily debated during this election.
Lasso, who represents a motley crew of opposition parties, including a Marxist-Leninist outfit which used to control hiring at many public institutions, has looked to capitalize on frustration with the SENESCYT’s process for allocating quotas at different institutions to push for its dismantling.
Angel Sotomayor himself experienced this after not finding a spot in his local university in Machala.
"Our proposal is to give universities the autonomy and freedom to apply their admission systems," Lasso was quoted as saying the opposition-friendly daily, El Comercio.
In addition to re-decentralizing administration, Lasso and his party have advocated for a reorganization of university funding based on the scandal-ridden Chilean model.
“Redirect resources for public education toward the parents of families … the father or mother may choose to remain In the public education system or migrate to private or community education system, according to their preferences,” the CREO platform states.
What CREO describes is known in other countries as a "voucher" system, which Lasso has defended as having "dealt with quality problems that existed in public schools" in Chile, where the model was first introduced in 1981 under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet as part of a sweeping set of privatizations and deregulations as advised by economists from the Chicago School of Economics.
Since at least 2006, Chile has seen massive student mobilizations calling for reforms to the education system, both in higher and secondary education. Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Chileans support an overhaul to the system, which is seen as exorbitantly expensive and rife with inequality when it comes to quality and academic standards.
“Chile is marked by a private education, a demarcated education system, where the elite have different schools than the schools for the poorest people, and universities are too expensive,” Sebastián Medina, a student leader at the University of Bio Bio Chilan in Chile told teleSUR. “To study you have to get into a 20-year debt and there isn't another option, you have to become indebted.”
In the United States, the model has recently come into the spotlight again with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. Education advocates warn that DeVos will broadly expand the system - which currently only serves some 400,000 students - at the expense of already underfunded public schools.
Ramirez fears public institutions in Ecuador will suffer the same fate.
“It is a process of commodification of higher education, a privatization of higher education because a student is at a public university will be able to take this voucher to go to another private university, thereby de-financing the public university,” Ramirez says.
The academic also expresses his concern that Lasso’s plans for education cement Ecuador’s current export-dependency by working against the plans of the current government to train professionals for a knowledge-based economy.
Ramirez says the alternative is the model of financing is the one that universal access through taxation.
“For us, education is a right and there must be collective action for all Ecuadoreans to finance the education of all Ecuadoreans.”
Sotomayor agrees and has organized demonstrations with fellow students against Lasso’s proposal.
“What Lasso is proposing is a disaster,” the 20-year-old said. “Compared to previous governments, what we have isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty close to ideal.”