Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to start by warmly thanking the Government of Ecuador for inviting me, for giving their full support to this mission and for sharing with me documentation and information extensively. I am delighted by the personal support of authorities to my activities over the last eight days in your country.
I would also like to thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and in Quito, for their valuable assistance organizing my program of meetings and visits to the field.
Just before this press conference, I had the honor to meet His Excellency Mr. Rafael Correa, President of the Republic of Ecuador.
During my stay, I also met with various authorities, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Education, the Coordination Minister of Social Inclusion, the Minister of Justice and Human Rights and Cults, the Minister of Knowledge and Human Talent, and the National Secretary for Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation. I also met with high authorities of the National Secretariat for Planning and Development (SENPLADES), the municipality of Quito and the Defensoria del Pueblo (The National Human Rights institution of Ecuador). I met representatives from the United Nations system, international cooperation agencies and numerous civil society organizations working in Ecuador, including representatives from afro-Ecuadorians and indigenous groups, various teachers unions, and students councils. I had also the privilege to visit a number of education institutions and met their directors, teachers, students and their parents in Quito, Guayaquil and Cayambe.
In this regard, I would like to warmly thank all those who met me and took the time to share their experiences, and to provide information. I particularly thank all schools and institutions that received me and shared their experiences and aspirations in relation to their respective work in the field of education.
Today, I am here to share with you my initial impressions. I will limit myself to preliminary remarks on some issues that, along with others, will be explored in more detail in the report on my visit which I will present to the Human Rights Council in June 2013.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Over the last years, Ecuador has made unprecedented commitments to achieving the universal right to quality education. Education has become the highest priority for the country. The new Constitution of 2008 is a landmark, as it recognizes education as a strategic axis for national development. It establishes a comprehensive normative framework for the right to education opening a new and very solid path for its realization. Accordingly, the country has developed a set of laws and policies, in particular, the Law on Higher Education and the Law on Intercultural Education. This was a commendable process.
Ecuador is going through a process of historical reforms. Everywhere, I was pleased to hear about key importance of education for national development and the shared commitment of all stakeholders to participate in this process. Throughout my visit, everyone highlighted the importance of the innovative concept of good living (Sumak Kausay) in the context of the right to education and its essential objectives.
The recognition of the State obligations to ensure free and good quality education to every person up to secondary level and to progressively offer free higher education is in full conformity with the international human rights treaties to which Ecuador is a party. Moreover, the commitment to progressively increase financial resource allocations to the education sector, calculated in terms of the GDP demonstrate that investing in education is a priority in Ecuador.
These legal and policy reforms are very important steps. In my various reports to the United Nations, I have always emphasized the importance of establishing a comprehensive normative framework in line with international legal obligations laid down in human rights treaties. A solid legal framework is essential to ensure sustainability and continuity to public policies in this strategic sector.
I was also impressed by the long term planning and coordination of public policies in the education sector established through the 2006-2015 Plan for Education. Government efforts to develop and apply a human rights based approach to planning are also commendable. These are extremely important if the country wants to reverse the serious impact of limited planning and extreme political volatility experienced in the past.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Education is a public good, and the State should never renounce its obligation to preserve it as such. I would like especially to commend the provisions in the Constitution which lays down that “Education shall respond to public interest and not be used for individual or corporate interests.”
Given the limitations of the Ecuadorian education system in the past, there are huge challenges for the State and the society in accomplishing the ambitious education reform programmes. The Government can and must assert its leadership in the establishment of an education system that offers good quality education for all. In addition, as established through the constitution, “all persons, families and the society have the right and the responsibility to participate in the educational process.”
Enhanced investment in education is reflected in expanding education opportunities with greater prospects for access to education. Indicators already show that over the last years, the public education system is becoming more attractive, and more children are arriving to schools and will receive more years of education than previous generations.
As the education system expands it’s indispensable to respond to quality imperatives. In this sense, I was very happy to hear about the importance given by the Government for promoting and monitoring quality in education at all levels. National standards and norms for quality education currently being elaborated are most needed.
Quality will remain undermined as long as educational infrastructure is inadequate. Improvements in the infra-structure of schools are certainly needed across the country, especially in schools located in rural and marginalized areas, many of them serving indigenous and afro-Ecuadorian communities.
Teachers are indispensable for the provision of quality in education. Governmental initiatives to double teacher’s salaries, to provide adequate training and to improve their professional status and working conditions are crucial. Given the shortage of qualified teachers, Government must further devise progressive teacher training schemes. This also calls for an emphasis on dialogue with teachers and on their responsibility. It also requires the promotion of child-friendly learning processes. In this context, the phenomenon of short-term contractual teachers also compromises quality. Moreover, the teaching profession must become more attractive and socially esteemed.
Establishing quality standards and evaluating the performance of education staff and learning achievements of students are also very important to guide and refine public policies.
I noted that Government has initiated a thorough process of evaluation and reforms of higher education, setting high research and academic standards. I would like to commend the decision of the authorities to evaluate the conditions in universities in order to ensure quality and prevent any engagement in education a business, in accordance with the constitutional law. Education must be preserved as a public good.
The acquisition of knowledge, skills and competences which is so necessary in today’s societies requires the promotion of a merit-based system to access to higher education. At the same time, special measures are needed to support the most marginalized groups. Here again, opportunities are being broadened for the pursuit of higher education in the country and through scholarships for conducting studies abroad.
As seats of learning, Universities must have academic autonomy in terms of recruitment of teachers and academic and research pursuits. Government should be respectful of their academic freedom. At the same time, Universities have a social responsibility and should be held accountable with regard to the use of public resources.
With regard to vocational and technical education, a sector demanding greater attention, I would like to underline the need for an institutionalized system of collaboration between education institutions, industry and enterprises, with pathways for higher technical education for those with proven competence.
Quality in education is also undermined by violence in schools, which must be eliminated. This can only happen if communities, parents and schools staffs work together to build a safe and peaceful school environment that is respectful of human rights.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Side by side with quality in education, another core concern is the persistence of inequalities in education. Overcoming disparities in education in Ecuador, as in many other countries, is a permanent challenge. It is no secret that despite recent advances, communities living in poverty, indigenous peoples, afro Ecuadorians and the Montubio peoples remain under-served, and do not benefit from full education opportunities. Given the great diversity of Ecuador, particular attention must be paid to ensure that schools in poorer and marginalized neighborhoods benefit from targeted support measures in order to overcome economic barriers and discrimination.
The concept of intercultural education as fully embraced by the laws adopted in Ecuador implies that indigenous communities have their knowledge and culture preserved and promoted by the public education system, and this with their active participation so that measures adopted to assist them are culturally acceptable and appropriate.
I had the opportunity to witness the great investment in modern and well equipped schools in areas so far marginalized, such as the Millenium Educational Units (Unidades Educativas del Milenio). I also had the chance to visit a Replica School. Care must be taken to ensure that these innovative approaches do not exacerbate differences between students that have the luck to be included in these new schools and the majority who still go to schools with far less developed capacity.
Social justice and equity should guide all State initiatives in the field of education. Education is the most powerful and indispensable tool for empowering those living in extreme poverty in Ecuador.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
As I said, the full commitments of the Ecuadorian State to realize the right to education have their foundations in the Constitution, and a vigorous process of reform is taking place. Improvements in the education system over the last years are indeed notable and must be commended.
However, education is not only a responsibility of the Government alone, it is also a social responsibility. In this process, Government should without hesitation, maintain a dialogue with all stakeholders and civil society partners, so that they all remain engaged in this decisive process. The active participation of civil society, including in particular, teachers, students, their parents and communities is important for the continuous process of consolidation of a well-functioning national education system. There is need for good communication strategies seeking active involvement of the whole education community.
Thank you very much.