Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally — and in normal times they come to Maastricht in person for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time Dr Mindel van der Laar (MvdL) and Prof Kristof De Witte (KW) caught up with Gloria Bernal (GB) who will shortly defend her thesis “On improving education opportunities: preferences and performance of high school students in response to scholarships, information and co-education”
MvdL: In your study, you highlight inequalities in educational opportunities by socio-economic status, gender, and differences in academic performance, using Colombia as a case study. Interestingly inequality was high, not only in terms of access to education but also in terms of interest in the type of higher education and the influence governments have by providing scholarships to decrease this divide.
GB: Yes, education inequalities in Colombia are significant compared to international standards. Access to education, particularly to college, is highly dependent on the students’ family’s socio-economic status. Even very high achievers have low chances of gaining access to college education when they are born in a low-income family. The recent implementation of merit-based scholarships for low-income students in Colombia has increased the attendance of this population to high-quality universities.
In my dissertation, I show that the effects go further than enrolment. Opening educational opportunities, such (partial) scholarships, increases low-income students’ academic expectations and effort in high school.
Moreover, pre-college students’ preferences for higher education can be mediated by providing information – mainly information about financial aid and the cost of tertiary education. In contrast, when the scholarship was cancelled, I found that educational aspirations fell significantly, with females and the lowest-income students being the most affected. Policymakers should consider more than just the evident effects on the beneficiaries. When making decisions, they should also consider the significant spillover effects that these policies would have more generally over the youths.
KW: This thesis exploits unique Colombia data. Gloria holds excellent collaborations with the national agency for education, ICFES. This agency collects administrative data with information on standardised tests, school information but also detailed socio-economic information. The precise nature of the data allowed her to examine the eligibility for the scholarship in a straightforward way. Moreover, Gloria succeeded in combining this data with self-collected data for an information experiment.
Her thesis proves that similar combinations provide a solid base for original and high-level research. It also shows that good research ideas open doors in national agencies. ICFES was always very happy with the collaboration and the insights obtained from Gloria’s thesis.
MvdL: What is also interesting to note is that Gloria completed her thesis within our part-time PhD programme. Due to her employment as an academic staff member at Javeriana University in Colombia, she was already familiar with research and the academic research culture. Furthermore, with support from the NUFFIC scholarship, her PhD journey at UNU-MERIT became financially feasible.
GB: Obtaining a PhD is essential for my career. I like academics, teaching classes, research, and joining those with policy application for a real influence. This PhD allowed me to acquire the necessary tools to improve in all those dimensions and potentiate the impact I could have on the Colombian education system. Indeed, I was familiar with the academic environment at Javeriana University. Although this helps me become familiar with academic discussions, I needed much more training to develop a research framework: from the design to the execution. Creating my research required a lot of creativity and compromise and sacrificing sleeping time to work on it. I am very grateful to my sponsor NUFFIC, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, for giving me this opportunity in my career.
KW: The combination of intensive courses and sessions during the GPAC² programme and working daily with students and research has proven to be highly beneficial to the quality of her thesis. During her PhD studies, Gloria worked intensively with various sources of microdata. Thanks to her background as an education economist, she loved exploring novel empirical models, setting up exciting experiments and combining multiple datasets. Furthermore, as she was embedded in the research environment of Javeriana University, she had the opportunity to discuss initial ideas with her colleagues.
Although I am a bit biased, I think it was wise for Gloria to attend the GPAC² program. This program has been designed for eager students who are in similar situations. Moreover, as the program is flexible, she met many fellow students in similar positions of combining work with a PhD research; it has therefore proven to be a stimulating environment for her. Moreover, working at a different, though very international institution lays the foundation of a solid global network, becoming increasingly important within academia.
I am confident that the skills that Gloria acquired during her PhD will be transferred to her students. Her teaching as an associate professor at Javeriana University will provide novel insights and ideas for her research. Vice versa, her research will positively fuel her teaching activities.
GB: Pursuing my PhD at Maastricht fitted me in several aspects. On the one hand, it allowed me to stay in contact with international academic communities and practitioners worldwide while developing my research in Colombia. On the other hand, it involves rigorous research with an emphasis on the public policy implications. The latter is what I value the most because I believe that research must serve to generate fundamental changes in society.
However, it was challenging to keep focusing on the thesis when I had to teach courses, take other responsibilities from work, and take care of my family, especially my two little children (2 and 3 years old when I started). The COVID-19 Pandemic made things particularly demanding. While I was finishing my dissertation, the children were not allowed to go to school, and the task of homeschooling only added to our agendas. The dissertation process taught me a big lesson in terms of time management and resilience. Fortunately, I had the unconditional support of all my family and my two great supervisors.
On the one hand, Kristof was incredibly efficient in discussing the methodological sections and revising the chapters. Mindel always kept me on track with my studies and guided me patiently from day one to this stage. I am grateful for receiving all this support. I am also happy that both the pandemic and thesis era are finishing now; I can move forward to new and exciting plans.
KW: You are welcome. It was always a pleasure to discuss methodological issues with you. Education economics is an exciting field, as we aim to improve the educational outcomes of youngsters. Your research has shed new light on important topics related to preferences and performance. I am confident that Gloria’s papers will end up in highly ranked journals and that policymakers will pick them up. In that sense, you can be very proud of a PhD that combines academic rigour with strong field knowledge and policy relevance!
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers