Higher education in Latin America must think global and act local

A more international approach will boost higher education in the region, write Marco Zago and Raul Machado-Neto

November 23, 2016
Globe/map of South American countries
Source: iStock

Following a huge expansion in the past 40 years, universities in Latin America today face three major challenges.

First, they must improve access, so that young people can participate in higher education regardless of their social background, ethnic origin or financial means; second, they must improve the quality of teaching, to meet the needs of both local and global changes; and third, universities must strengthen the role of research and their links to local populations.

As an example, Brazil, with a population of 200 million, has 7.3 million higher education students and more than 2,000 higher education institutions, including 195 universities.

In spite of these huge numbers, no more than five universities are consistently listed among the top 500 of the world, and the participation rate of 18- to 22-year-olds in post-secondary education is only 15 per cent.

Higher education in Latin America needs to shift its focus from growth to the issues of quality and of relevance to local economies and social needs. To achieve this, it is necessary to have a large spectrum of higher education institutions – not just those that suit the model promoted by global rankings.

Heterogeneity is not a significant feature of the universities in our region. For instance, the State of São Paulo, one of the 27 regions of Brazil, is responsible for 50 per cent of the total number of researchers and 52 per cent of the research output of Brazil. Of this output, almost a quarter comes from a single institution: the University of São Paulo.

There are three important strategies for Latin America’s research universities: support of entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer; promotion of interdisciplinary research; and cooperation. Collaboration implies a greater network of diverse regional or national universities, as well as the fostering of international cooperation.

The role of internationalisation is also important.

Selected long-term international partners are key components of a comprehensive academic environment. Although no limitations should exist to interactions with as many institutions as opportunity may yield, each university should aim to establish strong links with a few privileged partners, to organise workshops, develop collaboration networks and promote joint research projects.

This strategy can lead to the identification of relevant research opportunities. An example of this approach is the strengthening of collaboration between the largest universities of Latin America and Spain in an “Ibero-American Union of Universities” (Unión Iberoamericana de Universidades). This includes the University of São Paulo, the University of Buenos Aires, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Barcelona.

As the global impact of articles that result from international collaboration is usually higher, one of the most important consequences of collaborative research is an increase in the quality and the impact of the published work – and the higher the proportion of articles published in collaboration, the greater the global impact. This fact is well known in Peru, the South American country with the highest collaboration rate.

Marco Zago is rector of the University of São Paulo, and Raul Machado-Neto is provost for international relations at the same institution. The 2016 BRICS & Emerging Economies Universities Summit will take place in Johannesburg from 30 November to 2 December. Book now.

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