Latin America University Rankings 2019: southern exposures

Despite the turmoil racking Venezuela and Brazil, there are bright spots in Latin America’s higher education landscape. Rachael Pells reports

June 18, 2019
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Browse the full Times Higher Education Latin America University Rankings 2019 results


Political and economic upheavals have been sweeping through the western hemisphere, and Latin America has witnessed dramatic changes in the past 12 months. The region has endured civil unrest, three presidential elections and widespread migration. The impact that such events have had on higher education tends not to make mainstream news headlines – even if it is no less significant.

Abject poverty in Venezuela combined with a continuing political stand-off between the president, Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, to leave universities in a mire this year, desperately low on resources and with staff and students too poor to travel to campuses.

In Brazil, the country’s controversial new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been accused of failing to deliver on promises to invest in science and research – increasing the ideological and political distance between his right-wing supporters and the academic community.

But 2018 also brought positive developments to celebrate. Chile established its first Ministry of Science, giving its academic community hope for a future in which research is better funded and prioritised. And a major project got under way to connect communities in the Amazon to the internet – allowing many prospective students and professionals access to a university education for the first time.

For much of the Latin American region, however, the higher education sector continued to grapple with familiar challenges. Lack of funding and resources for research, coupled with a brain drain of young talent, presents a threat to much of the area’s development. For Brazil and Venezuela especially, these problems are likely to intensify in coming months, driving ever more students and skilled professionals to consider their options elsewhere.

Brazil flag

In the view of Fernanda Estevan, associate professor at the São Paulo School of Economics, Brazil’s historically strong research reputation will not be eroded overnight. But, she says, “there is a lot of uncertainty ahead”.

“In Brazil, federal and state universities conduct most of the academic research, with a few exceptions in the private sector,” she explains, but the new presidential administration has “no concrete plans for federal institutions”.

“The Ministry of Education has been operating erratically and ideologically. If this situation persists, it could cause severe damage to educational and research institutions in the long term.”

With his promise to revive the nation’s faltering economy, Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper and self-professed Donald Trump fan, was elected by a landslide in October. To help achieve that turnaround, he pledged to raise spending on research and development from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. But academics have openly expressed scepticism that such a bold investment will actually be made at a time when public funding seems scant and universities a low priority.

To complicate matters further, the administration is already on to its second education minister since January. When Bolsonaro’s first education minister, Ricardo Vélez, faced Congress in March, he was criticised by opposition members for his failure to have prepared any concrete policy plan in his three months in the role. Days later, he was sacked and replaced by an economist with family ties to the government.

And yet, for many in higher education, it is not the procession of politically connected businessmen moving into ministerial roles in itself that is most troubling.

“We continue to have a minister who has no idea of his role, is unaware of the real problems of Brazilian education and has a fanciful ideological discourse,” says Frederico Dourado Morais, professor of pedagogy at the State University of Goiás. Bolsonaro’s outspoken dissatisfaction with the university sector, tied with reports of his party’s proposed “ideological indoctrination” of schools, colleges and university degree courses, are the real cause for alarm, he says.

A series of shocking headlines – from reports of police invasions of university campuses to plans for the introduction of an “ideological test” to ensure that only the politically right-leaning retain access to scholarships abroad – have caused great anxiety and worry among many Brazilian academics, particularly those old enough to remember the country’s era of military dictatorship. But the picture is complex and, according to many, hints at a deeper drive to unnerve public sector workers with the aim of dampening any political challenge from them.

According to Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo, there is also a clear pattern of Brazilian politicians using the public system – and universities in particular – as pawns in their political battles. Although infighting over the purpose and value of public universities “has always been an issue”, fuelled by the class divide and the fact that “Brazilian elites (with few exceptions) do not like knowledge and research…this level of attack is quite new”, she says.

As it happens, targeted investment in the expansion of the federal education system – including university admissions quotas for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and federal grants to pay up to 100 per cent of tuition fee costs at private institutions – have been largely successful in shrinking the social mobility gap over the past two decades.

But not everyone is pleased to see this change in the landscape, Marotti says. “Public universities have been an elite space for many decades, but now many people from lower and middle classes have gained access…which may have displeased part of this elite. So universities become part of a wider social dispute,” she says.

“I think we can always debate the issues of public expenditure, budgets, whether universities should be privately or publicly funded, but [the difference is] now we are experiencing a threat from people who do not respect scientific knowledge.”

Telescope

While the rapid and dramatic changes happening in Brazil offer no shortage of scandalous headlines in the rest of the world, they obscure some of the genuine progress that is being made in Latin America.

According to Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, Chile is one country that is performing well above expectations.

“The main issues [there] are the perennial ones – tuition [costs], with the government under large-scale mass pressure to phase out fees, and relations between the public and private higher education sectors,” he says. And yet, “Chile is lifting its research performance…and both public and private universities figure in the rankings” – a significant victory given the country’s past science funding struggles.

Meanwhile, Marginson’s own analysis reveals Colombia to be another country where research is improving rapidly – having grown in output by 16.2 per cent between 2006 and 2016. Comparatively, “Mexico and Argentina chronically underperform in higher education and research, and arguably other sectors, given their [low] level of per capita income”.

The most recent figures assembled by the US National Science Foundation show Chile with an average annual growth of 8 per cent in research papers between 2006 and 2016, compared with the world average of 3.9 per cent – evidence that its research sector punches well above its weight given the country’s small population.

It is also worth noting that Chile’s impressive research figures coincide with its high score for tackling inequality – coming sixth in the world for “reduced inequalities” in Times Higher Education ’s inaugural University Impact Rankings , which measure institutions’ research on social inequalities, their policies on discrimination and their commitment to recruiting a diverse body of staff and students. The “reduced inequalities” analysis was based on the top 100 of the table and excluded nations with fewer than three ranked institutions.

Chile has traditionally had a strong reputation as a progressive, equal opportunity state and is renowned for its gratuidad scheme, which covers tuition fees for students from the poorest 60 per cent of families. The sector is now under pressure to expand free tuition to all students, no matter their background. There has been talk of introducing gender quotas for academic posts in public institutions, and university leaders, by and large, spoke out in support last year when students joined the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment with their own mass protests.

It is hoped that the country’s science sector will continue to thrive with the help of the Ministry of Science – whose creation observers have described as the biggest reform to the sector in half a century, complementing the government’s ambition to improve Chile’s economic competitiveness and to bring it closer “towards an information and knowledge society”.

There are many issues for the new minister to address, but Claudio Ruff, rector of Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins University, believes the government has “the right person for the job”. Andrés Couve, who is head of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Chile’s medical school, “has a scientific background…is well known and respected…[and] has a holistic vision [for] both academia and politics”, all of which will be “important” in building bridges between the government and scientists, he says.

Despite the glowing research output figures, Ruff says “scientific production…will be a challenge” for the minister because “investment in innovation and development is still very low”.

Lift

Overall, Chile’s progress arguably stands out more sharply because of the struggles of its neighbours. But it has undoubtedly made advances, and key to continuing that success will be boosting research and development funding, which currently stands at less than 0.5 per cent of public spending.

Ultimately for Chile, and many of Latin America’s aspiring knowledge economies, the difference will come down to private investment. The ability to secure interest from committed third parties willing to invest in science and innovation will help the region to establish itself as a strong contender for global research. Likewise, the steady privatisation of university sectors may not be welcomed by all, but it will provide some security against the economic turbulence ahead.

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