Civil wars disrupt many aspects of life and development, including the education of the next generation. Yet until now there has been very little research into the subject. We spoke with Dr. Silvia Consuelo Gómez Soler after her record-breaking defence on this topical issue — which is relevant worldwide.
1. Congratulations on your PhD defence! You focused on civil conflict and education, drawing lessons from Colombia. Why did you choose this topic?
SG: Getting a better understanding of the possible effects of civil conflict on education is important because education plays a key role in the well-being of individuals and the economic development of nations. Yet researchers have so far paid little attention to the relationship between civil conflict and educational achievement; I therefore chose this topic to fill a major gap in the literature. By the year 2000, almost 1 in 10 countries with a population of at least half a million had experienced civil war in at least half of the years since 1945 or independence. This research is particularly relevant for my country, Colombia, because we have suffered decades of civil conflict affecting civilians both directly and indirectly.
2. In your study, you used an excellent database with microdata from Colombian students and schools. What were your most interesting findings?
SG: The Colombian case offers a unique opportunity for research into this topic. The availability of a rich database of conflict events in Colombia, maintained by CERAC, and a database containing the results of standardised exams at different levels of schooling, at ICFES, have opened new possibilities for research. As expected, the results show a negative and significant relationship between civil conflict and educational achievement. Yet the effect of conflict is much smaller than expected. I found two factors that could explain this finding: the protective effect of schools and self-selection. Attending school can play a very important role in protecting vulnerable children and young adults: schools can deliver a protective effect by providing a safe place to play, by offering an alternative to destructive behaviour, by providing access to healthy and nutritious meals, and by offering guidance from teachers. Furthermore, it is possible that those students who are facing difficulties associated with the conflict develop high levels of resilience that allows them to continue with their studies successfully.
Self-selection is a second factor. On the one hand, individuals who do not have the resources, whether monetary, psychological, or family support, to adapt to the tough conditions of conflict areas are more likely to drop out of school. On the other hand, students who have previously been exposed to conflict but stay in the system show more significant improvements in their academic performance compared to students not affected by conflict (if we compare the results obtained in the High School examination with the results obtained in the University level exam). I see two factors at play: (i) resilience and (ii) future expectations. Students who develop coping strategies and mechanisms to achieve their goals may have special protection against conflict-contaminated environments.
3. Your study made the headlines in Colombia, but the topic has wider relevance . How can your research help the many conflict-affected children now resuming their education across Europe?
SG: In terms of policymaking each country should be analysed separately. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for conflict regions. But you can draw some recommendations from my research that would apply to students forced to migrate from, say, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria. Those students who are victims of displacement have more needs than those students who are not, and this may be reflected in lower levels of achievement. Crucially, these needs are not just economic; there are also community and social factors at play.
Policymakers should work to create new and better incentives to keep displaced students in school full-time, and delay their entrance into the labour market. To achieve this, authorities may need programmes to help displaced families earn a higher income (i.e., employment, conditional cash transfers, and other forms of subsidies). Additionally, more governmental resources should be spent in order to meet the special needs of displaced students at schools (i.e., psychological help, school supplies, special remedial tutorials) and to supervise their progress at educational institutions.
4. You were part of the Dual Career PhD Programme (GPAC²), meaning you worked full-time while doing your PhD research. You not only completed the dissertation, but you were also the fastest ever doctoral graduate at UNU-MERIT – taking just 2.5 years! How did you manage it?
SG: It was a big challenge. It required a lot of discipline and time management. While I was writing my thesis, I worked from Monday to Friday at a local university in Bogota (Colombia) from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. When I had some free time at work I would use it to write my thesis, but most of the work was done at nights (6 p.m. to 11 p.m.) and during the weekends. It required a lot of discipline and determination to work 7 days a week on the thesis, but I think that working everyday was the key for success.
Another important element was the fact that I had great supervisors. My promoter (Prof. Dronkers) and my supervisor (Dr. Restrepo) were always there to answer questions and to provide comments about my work. Their response time was very fast and that allowed me to work with confidence during the 2.5 years. My family and my boyfriend also played a big part in making this accomplishment possible. They truly understood that most of my free time was no longer available for them because I had to use the time for my PhD. I think that having their support was also key.
5. In the GPAC² programme, we are considering ways to tap into our alumni network for the benefit of current students. How could we best use your knowledge and skills?
SG: I feel that I can contribute in several ways to the programme. I am currently an Assistant Professor of Economics at Universidad de La Sabana in Bogotá, Colombia. I love teaching. I feel that I can share my knowledge and skills with current students by teaching them a short course or seminar during the GPAC² week. I also think that I can serve as an advisor for current students during their research process. Most PhD fellows feel lost (in some way or another) at some point during the process of writing a PhD thesis. I consider that in a programme, like GPAC², the fellows would greatly benefit from the mentorship of an alumnus who can share some PhD wisdom.
UNU / H.Pijpers; Flickr / Compassion International