Brazil’s recent high-profile investment in science is perhaps the first time that Latin American higher education has registered on the global consciousness.
The region remains conspicuous by its absence from Times Higher Education’s recently released World University Rankings, but there is a growing sense both within Latin America and beyond that its days of being an academic backwater are fast drawing to a close.
According to Juan Carlos Hernandez, the director of projects and partnerships at the British Council in Mexico, improving the standard of its higher education has only recently become a priority for a region previously preoccupied with establishing democracy and combating poverty. “It used to be and still is a complex region,” he said.
One factor that appears to have held Latin American universities back is their insularity. According to Marcelo Villar, rector of Austral University, a small private university in Buenos Aires, even universities within Argentina have historically had little interest in learning from or collaborating with each other. “It has to do with Argentines’ individualistic character: we don’t look at our neighbours,” he said.
Mr Hernandez also pointed out that Latin American institutions interested in establishing fruitful partnerships with neighbouring institutions would typically struggle to find a suitable partner: “Others are likely to be in the same position as you or even worse.”
For this reason, the region’s universities have typically looked to partner with established research powerhouses further afield, in the US, UK, France and Germany.
“It is much easier for me to go to London than to São Paulo and I prefer to do that,” Dr Villar said. But the problem, according to Mr Hernandez, is that North American and European institutions have rarely responded to Latin American universities’ overtures.
“Latin America wasn’t visible enough before and was eclipsed by other markets,” he said.
However, he thinks that all that is rapidly changing and describes Latin America as “the new big player in the neighbourhood”.
Evidence of this can be seen in June’s groundbreaking summit of more than 1,000 vice-chancellors, organised by Spanish bank Santander.
The event, which took place in Mexico, also attracted 15 interested vice-chancellors from Britain, as well as two from Australia.
One of those was University of Edinburgh principal Sir Timothy O’Shea. He admitted his knowledge of Latin America had been “impoverished” until recently.
He said the international strategy of his institution – ranked 40th in THE’s world rankings – involved building links with top universities around the world, but its links in Latin America had been “weak” until Luis Juste, Santander Universities director in the UK, took him on a trip to the region and introduced him to the heads of three leading universities in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
He was impressed by what he saw. “It was quite a good personal education; the importance of South America is growing and I hadn’t properly realised that,” he said.
Such introductions and network building are at the heart of Santander’s efforts to improve higher education in Latin America, in which it has been investing for the past decade. According to Mr Juste, the programme arose out of a trip to the region in 1996 by the bank’s chairman, during which he became convinced it was “time big corporations gave something back to society”.
“We decided the best way to invest in the future was to invest in higher education. Since then all Latin American countries have had economic growth and consolidated democratically. This was built in their universities,” he said.
Santander also invests in higher education elsewhere such as its home country of Spain and, more recently, the UK. But the lion’s share of the €500 million (£434 million) it has spent so far – with another €600 million committed for the next five years – has been given to Latin American institutions, including 200 universities in Brazil alone.
The bank does not prescribe what the money must be spent on, believing that individual vice-chancellors are best placed to know what their strategic priorities are. But it is very keen to use its networks to promote greater collaboration, not merely with Europe and North America but also within Latin America.
As well as organising the Mexican conference, it has also developed a web portal, www.universia.net, to host discussions among the region’s universities.
A significant proportion of institutions have used Santander’s investment to fund scholarships for their students to study abroad, while most of the £3.5 million invested so far in the UK has been spent on scholarships for British students to travel in the opposite direction.
Mr Juste hopes the bank will be able to learn from UK higher education and pass on some tips to its Latin American network. “From the first meeting [with UK institutions] we realised we could learn so much about how they do research and approach entrepreneurialism, and this could be extremely useful for Latin American universities to go to the next step,” he said.
Sir Timothy confirmed that he was also keen on entrepreneurial collaborations and exploiting “business opportunities for Edinburgh staff and students”.
Dr Villar admitted that the emphasis placed on collaboration by Santander had come as a bit of a shock to many Latin American institutions. “I don’t recall having a meeting like [the one in Mexico] before. It was a nice surprise; having a space where we can get to know each other and see how each other thinks is extremely useful. Some interesting doors were opened,” he said.
Government-funded programmes to help Latin American students go abroad have been set up in some countries including Mexico, Chile and Colombia. Partly this is in order to relieve the strain on domestic institutions, which are struggling to cope with rising demand: a situation that, according to Mr Hernandez, could offer opportunities for foreign institutions to step in and fill the gap.
But Mr Hernandez said the motivation for funding scholarships for master’s and doctoral students was to produce well-trained researchers who could return home and help build their countries’ research base.
“All Latin American institutions now understand research is a way to become competitive internationally, but they have very few researchers. In Mexico, for example, between 40 and 50 per cent of research is done by a single institution: the National Autonomous University of Mexico,” he said.
According to Mr Juste, this also translates into a paucity of domestic PhD programmes in Latin America.
Another problem is that, outside Brazil, much of the region’s higher education sector remains sorely underfunded. Mexico and Argentina offer tax breaks to companies to invest in research and Dr Villar agreed that limited funding for science was available; for this reason he allocated some of his institution’s Santander grant to funding humanities research.
He used the rest to fund scholarships for poor Argentine students to study at Austral and he urged his government to increase funding for private universities – which are typically obliged to admit students according to their ability to pay fees rather than their academic strengths – as well as for the giant public universities, where education is completely free.
However, despite the progress of the institutions with which Sir Timothy wants to build partnerships – such as Brazil’s University of São Paulo, which data suggest is close to breaking into the world’s top 200 – the majority of the region’s higher education institutions are still not of international standard.
According to Mr Juste, there are 3,000 universities in Brazil alone, and another 1,000 in Mexico, and he suggested that a few mergers and closures may be in order.
“There is too much variation in quality. Public universities haven’t met increased demand and it is a good opportunity for private universities: many are excellent but some are not so good and they won’t survive,” he said.
Nevertheless, he remains optimistic. “Latin American universities have opened their minds in the past decade and they are definitely heading in the right direction,” he said.