‘Sky’s the limit’ as Latin American universities internationalise

Institutions seek to remove barriers to ensure student mobility is open to more than just the ‘very privileged few’

July 5, 2023
Source: iStock

Universities in Latin America are hoping to capitalise on the benefits of internationalisation, but sector leaders have stressed that student mobility should go both ways in order for it to truly benefit the continent.

Times Higher Education’s Latin America Universities Summit at the Monterrey Institute of Technology heard how, while students travelling abroad to study had become the norm in Asia, only 1.5 per cent of Latin America’s population benefited from such experiences.

But new technologies might help to open global experiences to a wider proportion of the population, and policy changes in the US were potentially encouraging a bigger flow in the opposite direction, speakers said.

Bruno Zepeda, the rector of Tecmilenio University, told the summit that mobility remained the domain of a “very privileged few” in Latin America and “virtual mobility” would be more equitable.

He said using artificial intelligence could unlock “truly global exchange programmes” and overcome issues such as language barriers.

Dr Zepeda suggested that students could be offered “immersive experiences” – such as virtually recreating what it is like to go to a marketplace in Oaxaca in southern Mexico – as part of a “new paradigm of international virtual mobility”.

“It is not going to be an inferior proposition,” he said. “Virtual mobility can have the best of both worlds. Even the privileged students who can have a semester or full year’s exchange will join the virtual programmes if we do it right.”

Although it was important that someone from the poor state of Chiapas, for example, had the chance to “open their eyes” by going to the US, said Dr Zepeda, it was just as vital for students to travel in the other direction and experience the realities of some of the problems the world faced.  

As it attempts to internationalise, Latin America “should not be afraid of brain drain”, said Arturo Reyes-Sandoval, general director of the National Polytechnic Institute, citing the experiences of India and China, where large numbers return after spending time abroad and create companies that “enrich” the countries.

But he admitted that there was a need for universities in Latin America to try to offer competitive wages or emphasise the benefits of working in the continent.

Dr Reyes-Sandoval said that it was necessary to remove barriers to internationalisation such as ensuring applicants could apply for all the necessary documentation online.

Recalling a time when his institution would “fill stadiums” with 100,000 in-person applicants, he said it had since switched to online admissions, a move that had increased interest from around the world, with 400 international applicants this year. Dr Reyes-Sandoval said it was now looking to make this system available to other universities.

Gabriela Gerón-Piñón, director of partnerships, innovation and communication at the University of Miami, agreed it was up to universities to showcase the innovation that is happening in Latin America. But her research had indicated little engagement with internationalisation so far, with only 13 per cent of Latin American university websites providing information in English, for example.

Thomas Opio, head of US student recruitment (Latin America and Africa) at Kaplan International Pathways, predicted student mobility post-Covid would increase, with more US students wanting to study in Latin America, saying the “sky’s the limit”.

He said it was particularly likely that students would be open to new opportunities after the Supreme Court’s cancellation of the Biden administration’s student debt cancellation plans.

More scholarships should be made available to ensure the benefits of studying abroad reach those who would benefit from it most, he said, and institutions should consider allowing students to put their financial aid towards covering the costs.


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