Latin American ‘privatisation’ and research performance under fire

Progress needed on equity, quality assurance and research, says University of Chile academic

July 3, 2016
Globe/map of South American countries
Source: iStock
Do Latin American governments need to think again about the policies they have pursued in higher education?

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Growth in private provision and other responses to the massification of higher education across Latin America are explored in a new paper.

Across the continent as a whole, writes author Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile, there has been “a fast growth in student participation”, a rapid increase in the number of (mostly private) institutions and new systems of quality control.

However, the working paper, published by the Centre for Global Higher Education and titled Global trends and their impact on Latin America: the role of the state and the private sector in the provision of higher education, notes that “Latin American universities are not performing well in international rankings”. Both quantity and quality of research remain unimpressive in countries other than Brazil, it says.

Explanatory factors cited in the paper include low percentages of gross domestic product devoted to research and development, even in the comparatively affluent Latin American nations, and a lack of academics with PhDs.

Dr Guzmán-Valenzuela predicts that “the private sector will continue to strengthen and offer more educational services while the scarce state funds will continue to meet consumers’ demands under a model of a quasi-market”.

She flags up significant issues of social equity in a region where “most of the poorest students access non-selective institutions while the richest students access the most prestigious and selective institutions”.

And the paper uses the example of Chile, “a paradigmatic case of neoliberal policies in higher education”, to point to some of the likely problems ahead.

Chile, says Dr Guzmán-Valenzuela, now has “one of the most privatised higher education systems in the world”. Although the public purse “historically has financed both state and private universities”, more recent times have seen “an explosion of private universities…and a pronounced decrease in state funding”, she adds.

The results of all this have not been encouraging, Dr Guzmán-Valenzuela argues. She cites a number of scandals “when it was discovered that some private universities obtained their accreditation by suborning members of the board of the quality assurance agency” and large-scale student protests in 2011 “calling for a high quality and free education for everybody”.

It comes as Times Higher Education prepares to hold its inaugural Latin America Universities Summit in Bogotá, Colombia, from 6 to 8 July.

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