Enabling transformation in universities: a comprehensive capability-friendly policy for the colombian universidad de ibagué

Boni Aristizábal, Alejandra (1); Velasco, Diana (2) (2019). 'Enabling transformation in universities: a comprehensive capability-friendly policy for the Colombian Universidad de Ibagué' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


This article explores the contribution that a Colombian university, Universidad de Ibagué (UI), can make to the human and sustainable development of its territory. In particular, it addresses the way in which the capabilities approach to human development can inspire, through a participatory design process, a university policy based on the substantive values ​​of human development: equity, sustainability, participation, diversity, well-being (Boni and Gasper, 2012; Penz et al,). This policy should serve to expand the capabilities of students, faculty, administrative and support units, as well as all those organizations that relate to UI in its academic and administrative areas. It is a challenging proposal because it includes, in a comprehensive way, the whole university community.

The process of designing and implementing the policy is based on a participatory approach, recognizing the actors directly and indirectly affected by this initiative, including its narratives and discourses and revealing the interests and politics that exist in every policy construction. This particiopatory process shows different connections: between different groups and people inside and outside the UI with differences in age, economic status, race, power, etc; connections between the academic and disciplinary field with other perspectives and ways of understanding the contribution of the university to human development; connecting different capabilities that give meaning and coherence to the mission of the UI. It is also a clear example of how joint work between policy makers (in this case the UI Vice-Rectory) and academics with experience in the field of capabilities and higher education, can be fruitful and synergistic.

UI is a private university of medium size according to Colombian standards (around 5,600 students and 330 teachers) founded in 1980 by a group of businessmen and civic leaders from the Department of Tolima. This department has suffered of high violence levels produced by the armed conflict between the State, civilians, guerrillas and illegal armed groups. Conflict has impacted negatively in the human development of the territory, putting Tolima in 12th place among 32 departments with high poverty levels in Colombia. In 2016 a peace agreement was signed between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) starting a disarmament process in 2017. Within this context is the fact that UI has taken an active role to transform and to build sustainable peace processes by bringing together students with communities to enhance human development capabilities.

Within its mission UI has defined the provision of comprehensive training for leaders and entrepreneurs with solid scientific and professional training, with deep-rooted ethical and moral principles, and committed to social, cultural and economic regional development. One of the concrete strategies followed was a Reform that started operating in 2015 which implied a change in the curriculum of the professional programs with the objective of improving quality, relevance and coherence within the missionary purpose. Greater flexibility was introduced in the curricula; the evaluation of the programs were proposed based on the acquisition of general, disciplinary and professional competences; a common cycle for all students starting professional programs was set for the first semester; and there was an important expansion of socio-humanistic subjects as electives. Also, a specific program, Peace and Region, became mandatory for all professional programs, so that the students in their last professional cycle have an immersion in the territory through their participation in interdisciplinary projects with communities to enhance their understanding and action regarding citizenship, peace and development.

However, a recent evaluation of the Reform (Boni and Arias, 2018), shows light and shadow. There is, in parts of the faculty, a lack of appropriation. In addition, regional commitment is not clearly perceived in the discourse of the actors, with the exception of the Peace and Region program. An important element that generates difficulties is work by competences. There is no clear and generalized appropriation of what this proposal implies. Along with this, there is a difficulty in starting up evaluation processes coherent with competency training.

These issues have steered the UI to recognise the importance of articulating a university policy based on the human development capabilities approach that can support the ethical vision of the UI and that serves as an umbrella under which the different academic and operational activities are developed. Choosing this framework is not accidental, because the current mission of the UI already recognizes the importance of training ethical professionals committed to regional development.

The process of construction of this policy consists of the following three phases:

1) Identification of narratives of different groups: students, faculty, technical staff, public and private external organizations. The selection of who represents these groups is crucial and a combination of different criteria have been followed: representativeness of different voices, power of implementation, gender balance and other types of potentially discriminatory factors. From these narratives, institutional documents and literature a first list of capacities is extracted (eg Walker, 2006). This will be followed by a participatory space in which mixed groups will choose the main capabilities of the UI.

2) From there, a smaller group of UI implementers will focus on designing the different pathways in which these capabilities can be enabled and developed in the academic and administrative spheres. These pathways will be designed responding to the gaps between reality and the desired expansion of the declared list of capacities.

3) Design and gradual implementation of strategies and instruments defined in the pathways of the second stage.

Each phase will have short cycles of verification and realisation of possibilities, so that there will be a continuous review of the pathways to be followed, based on a permanent and constructive evaluation of the process.

Phases 1 and 2 will be developed during 2019 and the implementation phase will be developed dynamically until 2023, when the institutional development plan 2019-2023 ends.

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