Private universities in Costa Rica – some observations on legal status and international comparability

According to a newspaper article published in 2012, “Costa Rica’s educational system is continually highlighted as one of the best in Latin America and it continues to produce quality graduates that are rapidly absorbed by private companies and state institutions.” (Tom Rosenberger, “A look at Costa Rica’s University, College, and School System“, Costa Rica Star, 2 May 2012)

Costa Rica is one of a number of Central American countries to have established a relatively large private university sector. As of 2017, the Ministerio de Educación Pública (MEP) included 54 private universities in its list of officially recognized institutions. This compares with a total number of universities in Costa Rica of 64, including 5 public universities and 5 international private universities. It can therefore be seen that the overwhelming majority of Costa Rican universities are private, although the public universities are all large institutions and some of the private universities are small. Since 2000, around 50% of Costa Rican students attend private universities and 50% attend public universities (Source: OECD, “Reviews of National Policies for Education: Education in Costa Rica”, 2017, p.5). Since at least the end of the last century, Costa Rican private universities have also sought to recruit students abroad, targeting both the Hispanic community in the USA and, increasingly, English speaking students seeking to study via distance learning.

All Costa Rican universities, both public and private, that currently hold government approval are listed in the International Association of Universities/UNESCO World Higher Education Database (WHED).

Universities in Costa Rica enjoy a high level of autonomy under the Constitution, and this autonomy is more generous for public universities. The public universities are self-governing under the umbrella of the National Council of Rectors (CONARE), which is the principal higher education representative body in Costa Rica. 38 out of the 54 private universities are members of CONARE.

The proposal to permit the official functioning and approval of private universities in Costa Rica was brought forward by CONARE, and given effect by CONARE at its Session on 31 October 1979. By Law No. 6693 of November 27, 1981, published in the Official Gazette, No. 243, dated December 21, 1981, the Consejo Nacional de Enseñanza Superior Universitaria Privada (National Council of Private Higher Education) (CONESUP) was created. Therefore under this law, CONESUP became the statutory government body in charge of regulating and supervising private universities. It is illegal for a private university to operate or enrol students without first having received CONESUP approval. CONESUP’s council includes the Minister of Public Education, and representatives from CONARE, private universities and community colleges, and the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy.

The approval process of a new private university in Costa Rica includes a review of the proposed institution’s facilities, faculty, programmes and establishment, in which the Organic Law of the university (the statutes and regulations by which it exercises its functions) is an important component. CONESUP inspects private universities to ensure that basic standards are maintained. Institutional approval by CONESUP can be suspended or revoked altogether in the event of infringement of its protocols. CONESUP approval is available both to traditional campus-based universities and also to universities that offer education via correspondence or distance learning online. All programmes that are to be offered by a private university in Costa Rica must undergo programmatic approval by CONESUP.

Notwithstanding this, and the strengthening of CONESUP’s authority in 2000 and 2005 respectively, the degree of autonomy extended to private universities in Law No. 6693-81 is still high. Article 8 of that law establishes that “once its operation has been authorized, the private university shall have total liberty to develop its academic activities and curriculum as well as its study plans and programs…” Article 9 of the same body of law determines that “within the terms of this law, the private universities as institutions of superior education shall enjoy total liberty with regard to the curriculum, scientific research and the diffusion of culture…” [Source: Official translation of document from Spanish to English by Dora O. De Guillén, Official Translator of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Costa Rica, authenticated by stamp of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].

In 1999, Costa Rica established the Sistema Nacional de Acreditación de la Educación Superior (National System of Accreditation) (SINAES). SINAES is a voluntary accreditation body for both public and private university degree programmes. SINAES accredits only programmes, not institutions. As of 2015, only 12% (140 out of 1,165) of the degree programmes that are offered legally in Costa Rica have been accredited by SINAES, with 9% of private university and 15% of public university programmes being so accredited. In the Costa Rican civil service, preferential treatment is given to holders of SINAES-accredited degrees. Elsewhere, the value of SINAES accreditation is determined by the market, and its low take-up suggests that for the majority of Costa Rican universities and their students, it is not seen as significant.

The degrees that a private university may grant are established in principle under its Organic Law and Regulations which are part of its foundation documents. For example, the Organic Law and Regulations of the Universidad Empresarial de Costa Rica, a private university approved by CONESUP since 5 November 1997, states in its first chapter:

“Article 45: The University shall grant the degrees Bachelor, Graduate Degree (Licenciatura), Master, Professional Specialization and Doctor. Article 46: In order to obtain the academic degree of Bachelor, it is required to have passed a minimum of 120 credits and a maximum of 144, for the Graduate Degree 30 to 36 additional credits of those required for the Bachelor’s degree need to have been passed when the career includes such degree. Otherwise, the student must pass a minimum of 150 and a maximum of 180 credits. For the Master’s degree, a minimum of 180 and a maximum of 192 or 60 to 72 additional credits of those required for the Bachelor’s degree must have been passed. For the Doctor’s degree, a minimum of 100 credits and a maximum of 120 additional credits of those required for the Bachelor’s degree need to have been passed. For the Professional Specialization, the necessary credits are not defined but ¡t is required to possess the academic Graduate Degree (Licenciatura).” [Source: Official translation of document from Spanish to English by Dora O. De Guillén, Official Translator of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Costa Rica, authenticated by stamp of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].

It is important to clarify that CONESUP’s approval of degree programmes extends only to those programmes which are offered in Costa Rica itself. The question of internationally-offered programmes and those offered in collaboration between private Costa Rican universities and overseas universities was dealt with by CONESUP in its official Circular Number 270-98-CONESUP of April 28, 1998. In that document, CONESUP states “In cases where the academic offer is being developed outside of the national territory CONESUP does not have any authority whatsoever.” [Source: Official translation of document from Spanish to English by Dora O. De Guillén, Official Translator of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Costa Rica, authenticated by stamp of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs]. Therefore such programmes are not eligible for CONESUP programmatic approval. The degrees that result from them are still, however, issued in Costa Rica under the legal authority bestowed on the universities by virtue of their foundation and the law on the granting of degrees.

Comparability considerations

In the majority of countries of the world, government agencies are responsible for the accreditation and approval processes of private higher education providers. Costa Rica conforms to this pattern. The unusual features in the Costa Rican system are firstly that the numerical majority of universities are private rather than public, and secondly that the regulatory system allows a high degree of freedom to all universities, mandating basic standards as compulsory under the law, and offering a further voluntary programmatic accreditation scheme for those who wish to participate in it.

The low take-up of the SINAES scheme even among the public universities means that while a SINAES-accredited degree can be taken to be accredited under a quality scheme that meets international standards, a non-SINAES-accredited degree cannot be dismissed out of hand without dismissing the vast majority of Costa Rican degrees, both public and private. Nor would it be reasonable to refer to non-SINAES-accredited degrees as “unaccredited” in a general sense, since such degrees not only are part of a governmental regulatory framework but are issued in full accordance with Costa Rican law and have full validity as such within that country.

In determining the comparability of such awards, it is necessary to have reference to reliable and established international sources that deal with the recognition of international credentials. One of the most useful of these sources is the European Area of Recognition Manual, published by a consortium consisting of a number of national recognition bodies from European Union member states.

The first question to ask is whether a private Costa Rican university can meet the definition of a recognized institution established by the Manual. This definition is set out as follows:

“Recognition refers to the official status granted by national legislation. Higher education is governed by national legislation in most countries. Laws on higher education lay down the framework for the system as a whole, stipulate general criteria that have to be met, define policies and procedures that should be in place and bestow official, degree-granting authority on institutions, both public and private. Institutions that fulfil the requirements set in national legislation and have official degree-granting authority are considered to be recognised, though a different term may be used.” (p.21)

In Costa Rica, private universities are granted official status by national legislation. CONESUP as a mandated government body under such national legislation approves private universities and bestows official degree-granting authority through this act of approval. Therefore, a private Costa Rican university meets the definition of a recognized institution.

Next, we should consider the more complex matter of whether such institutions can be considered both recognized and accredited. Here the Manual states the following:

Recognition/accreditation of an institution and recognition/accreditation of a programme.

Generally qualifications awarded by recognised institutions are considered to be recognised. However, in some countries recognition/accreditation of a programme is separate from the recognition/accreditation of an institution. In other words, it is possible for recognised institutions to offer programmes that are not officially recognised and for non-recognised institutions to offer recognised programmes.” (ibid.)

We have established that Costa Rican private universities are recognized institutions, and therefore the presumption in the first sentence above applies, that “qualifications awarded by recognised institutions are considered to be recognised”. Notwithstanding this, we should also consider the rest of the paragraph. It is not possible for institutions that are not officially recognized to offer recognized programmes in Costa Rica, and therefore this provision does not apply. But programmatic accreditation does exist in Costa Rica. In the case of private university programmes offered within Costa Rican territory, this takes the form of compulsory approval by CONESUP either with or without additional voluntary accreditation by SINAES. For such programmes offered outside Costa Rican territory, the option of programmatic approval/accreditation is not available.

In order to interpret this correctly, we should consider the matter in context. The legal status of the degree awarded is exactly the same, whether it is accredited by SINAES or not, and whether (for private institutions) the programme is internally delivered and thus CONESUP-approved, or externally delivered and thus ineligible for CONESUP approval. All are Costa Rican degrees issued by government-recognized universities.

Moreover, degrees issued by Costa Rican public universities that are not accredited by SINAES are routinely considered to be equivalent to accredited degrees from other countries; indeed, as the article quoted in our opening paragraph maintains, Costa Rica’s system of education is “continually highlighted as one of the best in Latin America”. And the Manual states, “No distinction should be made between qualifications or periods of study earned at private versus public institutions, as long as the private institution is recognised and/or accredited by competent authorities.” (p. 22).

The Manual offers an example of how to treat a degree from an institution that is recognized but where there is no accreditation system implemented. Note that while SINAES is extant in Costa Rica, its purely voluntary nature means that it is not “implemented” in the sense the Manual uses that term, since it defines accreditation as effectively a compulsory process (p. 21).

Example 2

An applicant seeks recognition of his master degree in law. This qualification was awarded by a recognised higher education institution listed on the website of the Ministry of Education. Since an accreditation system was not implemented in the country where the degree was obtained, neither the institution nor the programme was accredited. Both the institution and the programme were established in line with the national legislation on higher education. In this case the competent recognition authority should trust that the awarded qualification represents an accepted level of education and recognise it accordingly.” (p. 22)

Therefore, the basis of recognition in this case should be the recognized status of the university, where both institutions and programmes are established in line with the national legislation on higher education. That will be the case with all Costa Rican university degrees, both public and private, that are awarded by recognized universities.

Having established that such awards are recognized, the exact equivalency of any award will then depend upon a precise analysis, and the comparison of its requirements and contents to recognized awards in the system of education to which comparability is sought.

Key Sources

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