Latin America forges Bologna-style links at home and in Europe

EU-funded project will develop affinities between institutions on two continents. Paul Jump reports

九月 15, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Independence movements: it is hoped that strong university associations, free from government strictures, will look beyond national boundaries and towards greater continental integration

While the Bologna Process of European integration in higher education may have its critics, it is hoped that a new European Union-funded project will launch Latin America down a similar road towards harmonisation.

The three-year, €3.5 million (£3.1 million) project, known as Alfa Puentes (Alpha Bridges), will see 23 umbrella organisations from across Europe and Latin America working together both to improve integration within Latin America and to improve links and mutual understanding between universities in the two continents.

One of those organisations is the Association of the Montevideo Group of Universities, most of whose member universities come from Argentina and Brazil. Its executive secretary, Álvaro Maglia, said greater integration of Latin American universities was necessary to enhance academic cooperation and to promote "a political project of regional citizenship".

Nicolás Patrici, executive secretary of the University of Barcelona-based Observatory of European Union-Latin American Relations, which will act as an intermediary between the eight European and 15 Latin American participants in the project, said that integration would drive up educational standards and create a "better space" for economic development in the region.

Dr Maglia said his organisation was one of the fruits of 20 years of "vigorous development" of integration in the south of the continent. He added that there was already a formal process of higher education integration within the Mercosur common market, founded in 1991 and currently composed of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, with a number of associate member nations in the region.

Mr Patrici, who is Argentinian, noted that the Andean region also had some experience of commercial integration via the Andean Community of Nations, set up in 1969 and currently comprising Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. But he said governments' hopes that higher education could drive further regional harmonisation and development largely remained unfulfilled - due, in part, to the vast differences between Latin American countries' levels of development.

"Brazil and Argentina are better integrated than Brazil and Peru, even though Peru is also a neighbour of Brazil," Mr Patrici noted.

He said one of the key engines of European integration had been the development of a strong network of national university associations. But he said the capacity of such bodies in Latin America - and the level of political attention they received - remained very patchy. Hence, one of the major focuses of the Alfa Puentes project would be to boost the capacity of such associations.

Michael Gaebel, head of the higher education policy unit at the European University Association, which will lead the European element of the project, said strong university associations were a natural outgrowth of the increasing independence of universities from governments.

Rectors' clubs

"Associations in Europe used to be just rectors' clubs," he said. "They were on a budget basically decided in their ministry. If they wanted more money they went there individually and talked to officials. Now they have more of a policy role.

"Governments have realised they can no longer think out in a ministry what is good for the higher education sector. Now they have to consult it, and associations are one of the key partners in that process."

Recognising that integration across the entire Latin American continent is currently unrealistic, the main thrust of Alfa Puentes will be to support one major project selected by associations in each of Latin America's three major sub-regions.

The Andean Community will work on a common quality assurance regime, the Mercosur region will develop a strategy for greater internationalisation and mobility, and Central America and Mexico will try to establish a qualifications framework.

But Mr Gaebel noted that all three projects were closely interrelated. "You can't think of having mobility and mutual recognition if you are not quality assured," he noted.

The project will also fund a major continent-wide survey of how universities are currently tackling such issues, and sub-regions will be expected to lend a hand with one another's projects, particularly where they have relevant experience of their own.

For this reason, Dr Maglia expected that each sub-region would feel the benefit of the initiatives in many areas, in addition to the immediate issue it was working on.

Mr Gaebel's colleague Elizabeth Colucci, a programme manager at the EUA's higher education policy unit, said she hoped the project would also be a learning exercise for the six European University associations that the EUA had invited to participate.

"The Latin American universities are looking at regional convergence through a different lens and at a different point in time.

"The factors that contribute to their interest might be different for them and their solutions might be relevant to Europe, too," she said.

She admitted that previous high-level rhetoric about creating a common higher education "space" between Europe and Latin America had not been translated into specific policy objectives.

"The space has never been defined apart from joint projects and exchanges," she said.

"That is where we took it up: we want to focus on the actors involved and creating tangible objectives."

Unusually for a largely EU-funded project, management of Alfa Puentes will be decentralised, with each Latin American sub-region, plus Europe, deciding how it wants to spend its portion of the funding.

Mr Patrici admitted that loosening its control was a risk for the EU. "But the only way to build capacity is build capacity, not to pay a cheque," he said.

"The idea is to have stronger Latin American university associations and that has to be done by the Latin Americans."

He added that while the national associations of Spain and Portugal already had strong links with Latin America, the involvement of others - such as those from France, Germany and Poland - offered an opportunity for universities in those countries to forge stronger links with a "mirror continent" whose higher education system had been consciously modelled on the Spanish, French and German systems.

Rich pickings

An added incentive for Europe, Mr Patrici said, was the possibility of gaining greater access to the Latin American student market.

He said populous Mexico offered the potential for particularly rich pickings given the decline in Mexican students choosing to study in the US over the past decade.

All involved in the project stressed that even the specific sub-regional projects agreed upon would be very difficult to complete within the three-year funding period, and a Bologna-style process of full regional integration remained a very distant prospect.

But they also emphasised that the aim of the project was not to impose a European solution on Latin America. Europe's role, according to Mr Patrici, would be to share its ex-perience and act as "an example and a capacity builder" in the planned series of conferences and networking events.

Mr Gaebel added that Europe could not offer a perfect solution to integration even if it wanted to - because it did not have one.

"People thought, for instance, that once we had (common) recognition (of degrees) in place there would be no barrier to mobility.

"But we have become more humble and realistic and we understand there is no systems solution to all problems," he said.

This was because integration also required a "cultural change" among students, academics, managers and governors, he said.

"This explains some of the disappointment with the Bologna process in some quarters.

"Integration requires a system that has to be constantly maintained and developed and adjusted.

"But there is no doubt it can help you to be more international and to improve quality."



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