MinervaPandemic an opportunity to reimagine Latin American higher education

Pandemic an opportunity to reimagine Latin American higher education

Universities must collaborate and innovate if they want to retain their students and exit survival mode

At a digital roundtable titled “New strategies for enabling digital teaching and learning in Latin America” – held by Times Higher Education in partnership with Minerva Project – experts on higher education in Latin America came together to discuss the sector’s future. Minerva Project, an educational innovator, collaborates with leading institutions and organisations to design and deliver custom learning programmes.

The overarching message of the roundtable was that institutions, locally and internationally, must share what they have learned during the pandemic. “The online shift is here to stay,” said Minerva Project’s managing director of strategic partnerships, Sharan Chandradath Singh. “But we are still in crisis management.”

The pandemic brought a “painful baptism by fire, moving [universities] into the 21st century”, said Ron Martinez, internationalisation and language policy coordinator at Universidade Federal do Paraná in Brazil. “But we’re looking at things more optimistically going forward.”

Martinez added: “The pandemic forced us to rethink a lot of the mechanisms we were operating under, which probably needed to be looked at more carefully a long time ago.” For example, courses often listed books that could only be found in the physical library. When students were pushed off campuses, “that just became an anachronism”.

With travel banned and faculty and students grounded, international collaborations have had to adapt, too, said Vahan Agopyan, president of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. For example, researchers at his institution are now collecting data from experiments, which they share virtually with colleagues in other countries. Similarly, foreign researchers share data with them. “It’s a new approach for international activities with less mobility,” he said.

The pandemic has also highlighted existing inequalities among students and faculty, which institutions will have to overcome if they want to retain their students, said Denise Pires de Carvalho, rector of Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Although it is the largest federal university in the country, about 10 per cent of its students don’t have access to the internet or appropriate places to study. Now, the institution is looking to return to campus for practical courses, such as medicine, and students will need to use public transport and risk Covid-19 infection; others will have to return from their homes in other parts of the country.

“It’s a great challenge, but we have to face it, otherwise these students will leave our institutions; they will leave higher education,” de Carvalho said.

Greater integration with other institutions around the country could help overcome students’ mobility issues by allowing them to take classes at other institutions, de Carvalho said.

For José Celso Freire Jr, associate provost for international affairs and head of the international office at São Paulo State University (UNESP) in Brazil, the pandemic highlighted the importance of student mobility. Although UNESP already offered students a virtual mobility programme before the pandemic, “we started to organise the possibility for our students to register in our partners’ universities [and] courses. This was very important,” he said.

In Chile, for decades there has been a focus on inter-university competition rather than collaboration, said Ennio Vivaldi Véjar, rector at the Universidad de Chile. But university collaboration “is essential to academic life, to scholarship, to science”. Véjar added: “The core curriculum became much more important. It was a big opportunity to rethink what was the key thing we wanted to tell students when we [were limited by the pandemic].”

At the same time, however, Latin American institutions are struggling with many of the challenges faced by universities around the world. “It was not enough to just try to bring courses into the homes of students,” said David Garza-Salazar, president of Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico. “How can you actually bring the university experience via distance learning? It’s an experience in which students grow, not just intellectually but emotionally, socially.” This social aspect will require a lot more attention in the future, Garza-Salazar said.

At the moment, universities are in “survival mode”, said Marcelo Knobel, rector of the University of Campinas in Brazil. But the pandemic will have wide-reaching implications for research and higher education institutions. Going forward, they will have to create opportunities for the social and outreach activities that draw students and academics to universities.

The panel:

  • Vahan Agopyan, president, University of São Paulo
  • José Celso Freire Jr, associate provost for international affairs and head of the international office, São Paulo State University (UNESP)
  • Sharan Chandradath Singh, managing director of strategic partnerships, Minerva Project (cohost)
  • David Garza-Salazar, president, Tecnológico de Monterrey
  • Marcelo Knobel, rector, University of Campinas
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Ron Martinez, internationalisation and language policy coordinator, Universidade Federal do Paraná
  • Denise Pires de Carvalho, rector, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)
  • Soraya Smaili, rector, Universidade Federal de São Paulo (UNIFESP)
  • Ennio Vivaldi Véjar, rector, Universidad de Chile

Find out more about Minerva Project.

Watch the Times Higher Education and Minerva Project roundtable on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

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