Stop wasting resources on low-quality HE, Latin America told

World Bank’s head of education calls for focus on creating ‘single ecosystem’ in tertiary education

July 13, 2021
Santiago, Latin America Universities Summit on higher education
Santiago, Chile

Latin America needs to create a “single ecosystem” of tertiary education and improve regulation to stamp out “waste of human resources” in low-quality private universities, according to the World Bank’s head of education.

Jaime Saavedra, a former minister of education of Peru, was speaking at the Times Higher Education Latin America Universities Summit on 13 July.

The World Bank saw higher education as “an essential sector for development of the region”, he told the event.

Looking at pre-Covid issues in Latin American higher education, he said one key factor was that “most, almost all the growth, in enrolments in the last 20 years has been related to higher investments in private education institutions”.

There was also a “weak” connection between course offerings and labour market needs, he added.

And there was a disconnect between universities and technical education, with a dearth of short programmes. “We don’t see yet one single ecosystem of tertiary education,” Dr Saavedra said.

Meanwhile, “quality continues being a tremendous challenge” and half of those who enrol don’t graduate, he continued. “There has been an expansion that has unfortunately been driven by many low-quality universities in this expansion, particularly of the private sector.”

Plus there was “growing fiscal constraint for public support [for] quality” and for research, he added.

The pandemic has exposed a “huge digital divide” in terms of household online access and institutions’ infrastructure, showing “low and unequal preparedness for virtual instruction”, Dr Saavedra continued.

The second wave has caused “massive closures of HEIs”, with “no foreseeable reopening of face-to-face classes until more of the population is vaccinated”, and significant impact on research through lab closures. In Brazil, there has been a 40 per cent drop in new enrolments during the pandemic, Dr Saavedra said.

To address these problems, he said Latin America needed “strategically diversified systems”, bridging university and technical and vocational education, so students do not have to choose between routes. “In this world of lifelong learning, these paths…have to touch each other,” he added.

Equity in access was “a social and political priority”, with ensuring that all students can take courses that are “useful in the future and pertinent given the structure of the labour market” being important “from the perspective of social stability”, Dr Saavedra said.

Latin America must “improve regulatory systems such that we discourage low-quality institutions”, he continued. “Because that is probably the major inefficiency in terms of wasted human resources.”

One solution could be “results-based financing schemes”, linking funding for public and private institutions “to improvements in the quality of research [or] teaching”, he suggested.

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