Learning is part of a person’s whole life. Therefore, cities are ideal environments for establishing learning communities. In Villa María, we are convinced that this experience of learning in a community is the keystone to creating greater social justice, a more inclusive society and better opportunities for all.
Martín Gill, Mayor of Villa María, Córdoba, Argentina
Building a learning city
Villa María is a vibrant city with more than 77,000 inhabitants. Its rich agricultural land makes it Argentina’s market leader in milk production. This is not the city’s only asset: Villa María is also recognized nationwide for the standing of its educational institutions, which include the National University of Villa María (Universidad Nacional de Villa María). The city’s reputation as a hub of higher education is unsurprising: the city allocates 55 per cent of its education budget to its universities. However, the city’s commitment to education extends far beyond supporting universities. Learning is a focus of many of the municipality’s public policies, particularly in health and social policy. Notably, Villa María guarantees free health care for children and young people, and free access to public transport for students, adults accompanying children, and senior citizens. All newborn infants and their families are given a municipal library card; a universal measure designed to trigger an interest in learning from a very young age and to foster family learning activities. A rich array of free learning activities provides opportunities for all of the city's inhabitants, especially the most vulnerable.
The municipality of Villa María has worked hard to encourage its inhabitants to participate in the political life of the city. Children receive civic education from an early age, and can go on to participate in an innovative Children’s Parliament, while citizens can remain politically committed throughout their lives by becoming involved in the organization of mayoral meetings in neighbourhoods across the city. This political engagement is essential to the building of a learning city in Villa María. The municipality has also offered its citizens the tools they need to participate in shaping the city’s strategy, by making its data public and offering free access to a broad range of useful statistics pertaining to social, economic and cultural matters.
The municipality strives to implement actions that support education and learning. First, it ensures that all children and young people have access to formal education by implementing initiatives such as free health care and public transportation. Vulnerable young people receive special attention, for example, through additional school support from a mobile team of professionals. They also benefit from access to sporting activities designed to encourage them to remain in education. Adults are given the chance to complete their studies, supported by dedicated tutors. No fewer than 725 adults have registered for this scheme to date. Villa María has also launched a number of powerful initiatives to encourage learning throughout life, including offering municipal library cards to all families free of charge. Mobile libraries and multiple learning venues increase access to learning in all of the city’s neighbourhoods.
This comprehensive plan to provide learning and education for all is made possible by a strong coordinating structure that receives the full support of the city’s departments, all of which are fully committed to making learning the unifying thread of all of their municipal policies.
As part of its learning strategy, Villa María has made its municipal data freely accessible through a dedicated online platform. This allows citizens to follow the city’s progress, while encouraging them to think creatively and develop tools that enable an in-depth analysis of their living environment.
The city is constantly reinforcing its collaborations with other cities. This is integral to its overall strategy: Villa María’s action plan includes projects that require municipal secretariats to work closely with other cities, provincial bodies and national institutions to achieve the city’s objectives in an effective and sustainable way. Furthermore, and in order to encourage the exchange of best practice with other learning cities, Villa María has created an international cooperation office.
- Developing a plan
In devising its learning city strategy, Villa María identified two primary requirements: high-quality, inclusive opportunities to generate the human resources needed to build a learning city; and measures to mobilize political will and help Villa María realise its potential as a learning city. A set of related objectives guides the implementation of concrete actions: universal literacy and improved completion rates; lifelong education; civic involvement in the political life of the city; and the promotion of technology transfer and scientific innovation.
Villa María carries out a wide range of actions related to education. It identifies individuals who have not accessed or completed education; develops learning programmes that target children, young people and adults; and works in close cooperation with family welfare centres to assist the most vulnerable. It provides teachers with continuous training and additional support from mobile teams of professionals whose aim is to reduce school drop-out rates. Finally, the municipality has launched an inter-institutional programme to pave the way for the establishment of a vocational college.
In addition, Villa María provides its citizens with tools designed to encourage them to participate in political life. These include programmes for children and young people, such as a student council.
Villa María fosters the sharing of knowledge across the city by offering technology impact programmes through its research and knowledge transfer centres. To promote technology transfer, the National University of Villa María has worked with its integrated media centre to develop a software and video game design course. Moreover, the university broadcasts scientific programmes through its radio and television stations.
- Creating a coordinated structure involving all stakeholders
To lead its learning city project, the municipality of Villa María has formed an education secretariat with a dedicated coordinating unit. To ensure the best results for its strategy, the city has signed an agreement with the Latin American Social Sciences Institute, whereby the latter acts as a project consultant. Other partners include the city’s communication department, which is responsible for reporting on the city’s progress towards building a learning city. The education secretariat and Learning City Coordination Unit have their own budgets. Each of the city’s government departments allocates part of its budget to the project, enabling a substantial increase in human resources.
In order to boost city-wide learning opportunities still further, Villa María is in the process of creating a Learning City Council, which will be ratified by the municipal council in order to guarantee that it represents the city as a whole. In keeping with Villa María’s multi-disciplinary approach to learning, members will represent a wide range of sectors, including the education sector (public and private universities, tertiary institutes and schools); the production sector; trade unions; arts bodies; and community organizations (social clubs, churches, etc.).
The Learning City Council will be responsible for forming committees, planning actions encouraging lifelong learning in the city, and liaising with local forums such as activity and event groups and community liaison committees. A study committee will focus on advocating for sustainability, human rights and gender equality, lifelong learning, and employment.
- Mobilizing and utilizing resources
Villa María has implemented efficient cost-sharing mechanisms to increase the impact of its learning city strategy. The municipality cooperates with the private sector and other institutions at the regional and national levels to support its efforts and ensure that its projects cater for all relevant stakeholders.
Villa María strongly encourages the private sector to contribute towards funding projects that benefit the entire population. As a result, the municipality has launched a number of public-private consortia. One example is the Industry and Technology Park that fosters innovation and research by reinforcing links between universities and the private sector. Another is the Tourism and Recreation Authority, which is responsible for implementing a number of sports and tourism-related public policies, plans, programmes and projects. These partnerships strengthen private-sector participation and help to create common learning and education goals across the city.
Furthermore, the city has signed cooperation agreements with provincial governments, covering areas such as funds to maintain school buildings. Other ongoing projects include the creation of two PRO-A (Programa Avanzado de Educación Secundaria) schools within the Advanced Programme of Secondary Education of the Province of _Córdoba. These experimental schools have a strong emphasis on information and communication technologies and follow pedagogical principles, which promote not only cognitive skills, but the emotional and social development of the students as well.
To further increase the efficiency of financing mechanisms for its learning city initiative, Villa María has worked to revitalize its local clubs, neighbourhood centres and rail network.
- Making learning accessible to all
In order to create the conditions necessary to guarantee an inclusive education system that provides easy access to learning facilities for all regardless of their income, Villa María provides free public transportation for students, adults accompanying children up to the age of eight, and senior citizens. The city pays particular attention to vulnerable young people, offering new opportunities workshops and encouraging them to continue their studies and engage in sports such as boxing and swimming.
Joint projects between schools and the municipal art museum, Museo Bonfiglioli, aim to stimulate children’s appetite for art and culture, and allow them to access their cultural heritage. Exploration projects hosted by the museum confirm the role of cultural centres as learning sites that bring culture, art and learning together under one roof. Further opportunities for cultural learning in Villa María include special exhibitions, city-wide mobile libraries, and cultural and technological workshops, which were attended by more than 1,100 participants. The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts provides a programme offering discounted tickets for screenings of Argentinian films, attracting 3,200 spectators every month.
A broad range of projects aims to get senior citizens involved in learning activities. The senior citizens’ council brings together people from various sectors to organize projects and events for older people, including a festival and a volunteering scheme. In addition, the National University of Villa María offers specific programmes for senior citizens.
- Organizing celebratory events
Villa María organizes numerous events to maintain and increase inhabitants’ interest in learning and in the city’s rich cultural heritage. Attendance rates are high, testifying to the population’s desire to learn and discover new things. The 2016 Senior Citizen’s Festival, for example, attracted 9,000 participants. A further 3,000 attended the Creole circus and theatre, which promotes local talent by ensuring that all of the performers (including clowns, street artists, jugglers and actors) come from the city or the surrounding area. The Locro Championship is similarly designed to promote local culture: the competition, honouring the eponymous Argentinian dish, gives inhabitants from different neighbourhoods the opportunity to get together and celebrate their shared culture.
Villa María also organizes one-off events, such as the inauguration of the city’s symphony orchestra. To support the city’s aim of making culture accessible to all, the orchestra’s opening concert was broadcast on the National University of Villa María’s TV channel.
The 13th Education Conference, held in 2017, brought together 700 delegates and was attended by teachers from 80 communities in the Villa María area.
In October 2017, the city will host a 10-day event entitled ‘Villa María: Learning City’, focusing on the role of the five senses in learning. Universities, the Institute of Fine Arts, the conservatoire, tertiary education institutes, schools and other learning institutions will be invited to attend.
- Monitoring and evaluation
The municipality is deeply committed to developing a transparent evaluation system, open to administrative bodies, institutions and citizens. It has implemented the necessary components to encourage a citizen-led evaluation process. Its Open Government online platform is a crucial part of the learning city project, making information from the monitoring process publicly available. The platform provides a range of urban, rural, socio-demographic and health-related data. It is also used to certify processes, carry out internal monitoring tasks and apply GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) sustainability reporting guidelines to measure the social, economic and environmental impact of the city’s institutions.
The National University of Villa María obtains and processes data from the integrated regional observatory and produces statistics for the community and wider region. Villa María’s research institute successfully promotes the generation and transfer of knowledge. One example is the municipal education secretariat’s adult literacy programme, which was designed using data pertaining to the education level of parents of preschool children attending kindergarten. The Open Data project allows progress towards building a learning city to be evaluated externally while simultaneously boosting citizens’ participation in public life. This initiative is supported by the National University of Villa María and the National Technological University, which offer courses in statistical and socio-demographic research methods and academic writing, and provide opportunities for the development of long-term monitoring and evaluation strategies.
Every six months, the municipality rounds off the project by publishing public reports on education, health, open government, finance, inclusion, family, housing, neighbourhood government offices, sports and tourism.
- Achievements and the way forward
Villa María’s far-reaching efforts to ensure universal access to learning benefit its population in many ways. Citizens enjoy an extensive range of free learning activities and make full use of them: to date, 725 adults have registered to complete primary and secondary level education, and more than 1,000 students have benefited from free swimming lessons. Each year, more than 35,000 books are borrowed; every day, 400 children visit the technology library. In addition, the Bibliomóvil, a mobile library, reaches the city’s urban and rural districts with a range of recreational activities, such as concerts, plays and storytelling events, which are open to participants of all ages.
Villa María’s dynamic and comprehensive strategy also creates employment opportunities in the city. One example is the Technology Park that provides direct and indirect employment to more than 500 people.
The municipality of Villa María is planning a number of measures to further expand its learning city strategy. For example, it will increase the educational activities on offer by creating new spaces for civic participation, promoting public events and cultural sites, organizing scientific and cultural workshops for children and adults, and offering road-safety education. Furthermore, the municipality will organize periodic internal meetings on specific actions in order to intensify initiatives among municipal secretariats and highlight the contribution to the provincial government policy made by the entities responsible for social matters, education, culture, health care and productivity. Finally, Villa María intends to systematize the projects that have been developed thus far, with the aim of disseminating successful outcomes to other cities.
Gabriel Antonio Rios
Coordinator, Villa María Learning Cities Project
Official city website