Modern melting pots

September 4, 1998

Rebecca Warden talks to student leaders about their lives in Latin America

UNIVERSITIES in Latin America are facing up to the challenges of modernisation. Some countries, with Chile and Brazil in the forefront, have given a leading role to the private sector in providing higher education. Others, such as Uruguay or Cuba, have chosen to stick with the more traditional state-funded model. Three student leaders provide their verdict on the university systems of their countries.

BRAZIL

Access to higher education is a major issue for many young Brazilians, according to Wladimyr Camargos, in charge of international relations at Brazil's National Union Of Students.

Fewer than 10 per cent of people between 18 and 24 go to university, compared with more than 20 per cent in neighbouring Argentina. Mr Camargos puts this down to the shortage of places at state universities which provide only 35 per cent of the total.

The Brazilian university system is selective, with places distributed according to entrance exam results. The upshot is that places at the more reputable state universities are usually filled by students from wealthier backgrounds, while poorer students, who tend to get lower marks, are obliged to fall back on the private institutions.

Private universities charge monthly fees which range from $200-300 for courses in humanities up to $1,000 per month for medicine.

"Private universities that provide high-quality studies are few and far between and not many students can afford their fees," says Mr Camargos. He is concerned that members of the Brazilian government are now looking at the possibility of introducing tuition fees in state universities, believing this will only increase inequality.

Funding is another problem that has led to conflict. Teaching staff at state universities have just ended several months of industrial action as part of their campaign for improved rates of pay. Students such as Mr Camargos have been unable to attend classes for the past three months as a result.

CUBA

Nely Morera combines her studies in economics at the Higher Teaching, Technological and Professional Institute with her work as spokesperson on education and one of the youngest deputies in the Cuban National Congress.

She thinks that Cuban students are "exceptionally privileged" compared to their counterparts in other parts of the region. University education is free, there is a system of student grants and scholarships exist for taking postgraduate degrees in other countries. The Cuban government invests 10 per cent of its GNP in all levels of education, compared to only 3.5 per cent in Brazil. The result is that a high proportion of Cuba's 11.5 million people go to university, currently about 200,000.

However, Cuba's severe economic problems in recent years have taken their toll. "The student population has been significantly reduced in the past few years due to the effects of the United States blockade," says Ms Morera, pointing out that in 1986-87, student numbers had reached 350,000.

Resources have become scarce with students routinely having to share one course book between three or four people or use out-of-date texts. "When you compare Cuba to the rest of Latin America, it's a utopia, but compared to the possibilities we had in the past, the conditions today are precarious."

URUGUAY

Students in Uruguay are fairly well-off compared to students in other countries of the region in the opinion of Rony Gabriel Corbo, executive secretary of the Continental Latin American and Caribbean Students' Association. Tuition fees do not exist in the state system and a place at university is guaranteed to anyone with sufficient qualifications.

The presence of the private sector is minimal, providing only about 3,000 places out of a total student population of 80,000. All this makes for a high participation rate of more than 20 per cent of young people at the country's single university, the University of the Republic in Montevideo.

Nevertheless things are far from perfect. The Uruguayan government decided against following World Bank recommendations on ending free higher education which have been implemented across Latin American over the past decade. This has made Uruguay ineligible for loans from international organisations for higher education projects and has meant a freeze on the University of the Republic's budget of around $121 million per year.

Mr Corbo believes quality has suffered as a result since the growth in student numbers in recent years has not been matched by extra funding. Conditions for academic staff have worsened, "they have supported the progress of the institution by taking a loss in earning power," he says.

Most lecturers in Uruguay are forced to take a second job to supplement their low university salaries. He also believes the government does too little to encourage research which is relevant to the country's needs.

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