Carlos Tünnermann spoke to GUNI about quality and relevance of higher education at Central America

Carlos Tünnermann

Carlos Tünnermann is a lawyer and educator. He was born in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1933. He was elected for three terms of office (1964-1974) as chancellor of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and served as Minister of Education in his country. He also acted as the Nicaraguan ambassador in the United States and for the Organisation of American States (OAS). He has held several posts in UNESCO. He is currently the chairman of the Central American Higher Education Accreditation Board and a member of the Inter-American Committee. He is likewise an advisor for the OAS’s Inter-American Agency for Cooperation and Development. He has published nine books on subjects related to higher education.

Carlos Tünnermann spoke to us about the current situation and of the challenges to be faced in the assessment and accreditation of quality in Central America. For Tünnermann, it is fundamental for the development of the region that the quality of higher education in Central America continues improving. He stressed the need to develop a regional vision which will have an impact on improving research and the university network in Central American countries. Carlos Tünnermann gave the inaugural speech “University, pertinence, quality and accreditation in a globalised world” at the III IBCHE: “Accreditation for Quality Assurance: What is at Stake?”

How does the improving quality of Central American universities contribute to the development of the region?

Higher education evaluation and accreditation in Central American region:

In Central America we have come to the conclusion that we must, first and foremost, have a regional vision: we are small countries, but when united we can be successful partners. To this end we have created several institutions of a Central American nature. The movement towards the integration of higher education in the region began even before the movement towards economic integration. The first project to consider the creation of region-wide postgraduate courses was undertaken in 1962.

In Central America great efforts are being made to create a Central American system of accreditation. The idea is to unify accreditations from a regional agency. This will facilitate mobility and the recognition of qualifications in view of the rising competition in an increasingly open labour market. The aim of this process is to offer a guarantee and make employees responsible for the quality that is expected of them.

An important step forward was taken in the 1990s with the development of a Central American system for quality evaluation, which gave rise to the Central American System of Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation (SICEVAES) more than 10 years ago. It should be pointed out that SICEVAES benefited greatly from cooperation by the Germans, who offered a lot of support in the areas of education and quality assurance. As an exceptional measure, the German academic exchange service decided to give grants to the most financially disadvantaged students so that they could study abroad. Furthermore, the service helped SICEVAES prepare institutional self-assessment manuals and manuals for assessment in situ. These manuals were so well received that they later became of fundamental use for the University Council of Central America and began to be used by both public and private universities.

SICEVAES was consolidated in 1998, and approximately a year ago it was the object of an external assessment by the Germans, which I had the pleasure of attending. We discovered that close to 100 university courses in Central America had undergone processes of self-assessment. Furthermore, the assessment process did not end simply with a report but with the drawing up of a plan for improvement. It was then decided that the reports would be used as a basis for the accreditation processes.

The assessment of quality and accreditation in Central America:

The National System of Higher Education Accreditation (SINAES) was created in Costa Rica, and was the first system of assessment of higher education. It was created on the initiative of the four public universities and, during the process, four of the main private universities were also invited to take part. It should be noted that Costa Rica is the most educationally advanced country in the region: 35% of young people have taken part in some kind of higher education, a much higher figure than the Latin American average (approximately 20%). SINAES only accredits programmes but in a second phase it will also accredit institutions. The current problem is that the accreditation processes have an approximate cost of 8,000 dollars, a high price for universities who wish to accredit several programmes.

The next institution to be created was the Commission for Academic Quality, in El Salvador, the equivalent of SINAES in Costa Rica. This time the initiative came from the state, with a general law of education that dedicated a chapter to the need to create a system of accreditation of higher education. This law started a process of accreditation by means of indicators, by which the Ministry of Education establishes a ranking of institutions. It is worth noting that this system only accredits institutions and not programmes, which sometimes leads to the wrongful association of the accreditation of an institution with accreditation of its programmes. This has meant that the state university has not wanted to enter into the process of accreditation.

In Panama the National Council for the Accreditation of Higher Education has just been inaugurated and is now in the process of defining the manuals to be used. The initiative came from the board of rectors of the University of Panama, the governing institution of higher education in the country. Together they drew up a draft bill, so as to facilitate the participation of the four public universities, including the University of the Americas.

In the case of Nicaragua, a general education law was passed, which in reality is not very general, but instead very detailed. This law made it possible to create the National Council for the Quality Assessment of the Education System and the Accreditation of Higher Education. The objective of this council is to assess the quality of the Ministry of Education, a responsibility that I see as being truly ambitious and difficult to achieve. Furthermore, politicians in my country have interfered a great deal in the process of selection of candidates for seats on the Council, a fact which has politicized the process. Due to this, the public universities are very worried and are attempting to develop a project to reform the prevailing legislation.

Besides the national systems, in Central America we also have the specialized regional agencies. The Central American Agency for the Accreditation of Postgraduate courses (ACAP) was founded, as its name implies, in order to accredit postgraduate courses. This is quite a delicate field because sometimes courses are offered that do not comply with the necessary requirements of a postgraduate course. This occurs mainly in private universities that offer postgraduate courses without having the necessary resources. A regional agency specializing in architecture and engineering degrees has also been created and is based at the Technical University of Panama. Regarding other specialities, a regional agency specializing in agri-food and natural resources degrees has been created and has its headquarters in Guatemala. Another agency, AUPRICA, accredits private universities. The whole system is brought together in the Central American Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CCA), accrediting authority of the agencies and headquartered in Costa Rica, and of which I am president. All these organizations have been created with the consensus of all the interested parties in higher education (public and private universities, ministries of education, professional associations and student organisations).

Accreditation and pertinence as fundamental aspects of quality in the region:

We have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately in several countries there is a proliferation of private universities that do not deserve the name. It is important to not deceive young people. In El Salvador they have managed to expel from the system those universities which do not comply with the quality standards. A point of reference is beginning to be created in Central America, and thanks to that parents and young people bear in mind whether a university offers accredited courses. In this respect, we look to countries such as Colombia, who have experience in this regard. This is what education should do, offer a guarantee.

If we want to be competitive and not waste our resources, quality and relevance are fundamental aspects of education. Only through human resources of high quality that are relevant to the real needs of the country can we achieve a better situation in such a competitive marketplace. It is said that in the future competition will exist not only between businesses, but also between education systems.

What are the challenges to be faced in university higher education in Central America, and what role does the quality of higher education in the region play? What is your vision of the challenges to be faced in ten years time?

We need to convince our governments that we have to invest more in education. More than 30 years ago, in the Declaration of Mexico, it was agreed that the countries would dedicate 7% of their GDP to education. Except for Costa Rica, the only country that is getting close to that figure, all the countries are far from achieving that aim. I should point out that new promises are being made. In the recent electoral campaign in my country, in November, three candidates promised to reach an investment in education of 7% of GDP within five years: I think that, in this respect, people are becoming more aware of the issue.

How likely do you think it is that a great university will be created in Central America? What alliances would be necessary?

We believe in integrating what we have, rather than creating something new. This must be done from the perspective of quality and relevance.

How much impact does the Central American Council for Higher Education Accreditation have on the development of university curricula across the region?

The CCA accredits agencies, which then act on a national level. The problem that we must face is how to overcome the over-emphasis on profession-based training. People must be convinced that universities should not only provide education and teach professions, but must also invest more in research and have larger budgets to do so. Furthermore, it is important to promote university extension, which in turn is connected to the identity of our countries, and above all to seek to integrate all of these aspects.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government