PhD fellow Gloria Bernal, from our GPAC2 cohort 2017, has won a scholarship from the Netherlands Fellowship Programme (NFP). One of only two beneficiaries from Maastricht University in the 2016 round, she currently works as a teacher at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia.
Gloria, what made you apply to the GPAC2 programme?
I think the GPAC2 programme provides a great combination of academic rigour and time flexibility. It allows me to conduct high quality research while allowing me to stay with my family and keep my job in Colombia.
Also, I find the GPAC2 to be a good opportunity to interact with other individuals, students and professors, with diverse experiences, backgrounds, nationalities and ways of thinking, who will enrich my personal perspective and approach to policy analysis in my research topic. In addition, living in Colombia will make it easier to get access to national entities and authorities for data, and therefore I will be able to actually visit some poor performance schools and sense realities that may be hidden from the data perspective.
Overall, this is a unique programme that enables me to reconcile the time I wish to spend with my family in Colombia with my career goals – and that is great!
In the award-winning proposal, you plan to study the gap in performance between public and private education. You say that guaranteeing access to public education will not be enough to ensure social mobility if public education performance, relative to national and international standards, is decreasing. So, you indicate not only access but also quality of education is essential. How do you plan to study this phenomenon?
Colombia has 100% coverage in primary school (and almost 85% in secondary). However, we ranked 62 out of 65 in the OECD’s PISA 2012 rankings. This is mainly because most public schools, which enrol 82% of the students (most of them low-income), performed very poorly. In fact, the scores gap for exit examinations between public and private schools exceed 0.25 standard deviations – equivalent to being behind about one year of school on average. Therefore, there is a clear need to propose effective policies to improve public schools in Colombia.
Studying this topic is not easy, though. Child performance depends on a complex mix of factors – ability, motivation, family environments, teachers, schools, culture, etc. – and their various interactions. Therefore, it is a challenge to identify exactly how a policy can impact a particular group of children or schools. I am hoping to learn new ways to do the best we can with the data at hand; and I am fortunate to be able to access significant research resources from my fellows and professors on the programme.
My basic plan is to perform a contextual analysis of the main features and frameworks of public education in the world, including cases of both high-quality and low-quality public education. Also, I plan to carry out a precise diagnostic of child performance in public schools in Colombia. Finally, using administrative data and impact evaluation techniques, I would like to perform an accurate quantitative analysis to identify where policies probably have more chances to improve education for low-income children.
Policy relevance is essential within the GPAC2 programme. Can you give some examples of how your study would be relevant to policy makers?
Low-income students live in a ‘poverty trap’, whereby they receive low quality education (as their parents did) — which means that most of them cannot access college or good job opportunities even if they have the potential. The problem is that simply spending more money on education does not guarantee quality. Therefore, identifying what factors prevent most low income students from performing well may help policymakers in how they use educational resources.
Colombia is full of challenging goals in terms of education such as “to become the best educated country in Latin America by 2025” – yet we lack proper plans to fulfil these goals. My aim is to contribute to these plans with creative and practical measures coming from my research.
As you know, engaging in a PhD means committing a substantial amount of time to your study. How do you plan to make space for the research, both within your work environment as well as your private life?
Fortunately, the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana is also committing to research and to the support of their faculty. I will be able to align my PhD research with my research agenda at work. Thus, by doing my dissertation I will be also fulfilling some of the tasks at Javeriana, which is very convenient. Nevertheless, I will need to put enormous effort and discipline to keep developing my research every day without distractions. If I can do that, the time that I usually spend with my family will not be greatly affected.
Flickr / B.Kaufmann
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.