New steps and missteps in US hunt for Latin partners

Study reveals challenges for US universities seeking alliances in Argentina, Brazil and Chile

Source: Ksenia Ragozina/

Mismatched academic calendars, issues with giving credits to exchange students, language barriers and cultural misunderstandings are among the challenges facing US universities looking to partner with institutions in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

This is according to a briefing paper published by the American Council on Education; but it also says there is a “world of opportunity” in terms of international engagement with the three countries.

The higher education systems in these countries are “developing rapidly” and “share a common interest in internationalisation and expanding their global reach”, according to the Engaging with the Southern Cone report published following a webinar on the topic on 24 April.

The paper explains that Argentina, Brazil and Chile have “struggled” to be part of the international higher education scene “for many years”. But recently, institutions have seen increases in student admissions, university budgets and international mobility programmes.

“Since 2000, economic reforms have brought macroeconomic stability, fiscal surpluses, and a new wave of expansion of international trade to the Southern Cone – all of which have created a renewed energy for higher education development,” says the report.

Some of the challenges are common to the three countries. Institutions are dogged with low graduation rates, questions about degree and teaching quality, and unclear mechanisms for crossborder cooperation, for example.

Others are country specific, with the language barrier a more “serious challenge” in Brazil than in Chile or Argentina, says the report.

In Argentina, rectors and deans at public universities are elected, and when they leave their post, many members of their team also leave. This “makes long-term planning and commitment for successful partnerships very difficult”. The academic year begins in March and ends in December, which can be problematic for student exchanges that last more than a few weeks.

Another complication for student exchanges is the fact that coursework done by Argentine students abroad is “rarely recognised for credit towards a student’s degree”. The experience of US universities trying to work with Brazilian institutions has revealed issues including poor communication, limited resources and infrastructure, and limited knowledge of the strengths of Brazilian institutions that affect potential partnerships.

There is a mismatch on a cultural level too. US universities tended to approach Brazilian institutions initially to gather factual information and then establish a rapport with a possibility of future partnership.

“Brazilian universities’ representatives want to build rapport first and then share details with future partners. More visits on both sides will help alleviate any mistrust and establish ties,” says the report.

Meanwhile, in Chile, the number of foreign students studying in the country on short-term semester-abroad experiences has seen an “explosive increase” since 1990. “All signs indicate that mobility between Chile and other countries will increase,” says the report.

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