World University Rankings 2018: Latin American brain drain must be halted

The region must revive the reform spirit of 100 years ago to reverse the loss of talent, say Marcelo Knobel and Andrés Bernasconi

September 5, 2017
Mural on a campus in Mexico City
Source: Alamy

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There are currently about 20 million students, 10,000 higher education institutions and 60,000 study programmes across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).

The region, covering South, Central and North America, has a total of about 650 million people – growing at about 1 per cent a year with improving life expectancy.

Despite the region’s great diversity, Latin American universities share a common identity. It is an identity defined by what we call “co-government” – the principle that all parties in the university (its students and graduates, as well as its faculty) share an equal stake in the institution – that can be better understood from a historical point of view.

The University of the Republic in Uruguay, for example, instituted the participation of students in collegiate organs in 1908. In that same year, the first International Congress of American Students took place in Montevideo, raising the banner of participation for the whole region. Its echoes finally reached Cordoba, Argentina, where students launched a movement for co-government that ended with profound university reforms in 1918.

Those events were a turning point for Latin American universities. Strong student movements broke with the paradigm dating from colonial times, introducing the imperative that universities become progressive, autonomous institutions, capable of transforming society. The colonial legacy was a model of centralisation and strong authoritarian power: most universities and higher education institutions created in colonial times, or after independence in the 19th century, had hierarchical forms of government and were dedicated to the transmission of knowledge, with teaching models mirroring practices dominant at European universities. In 1918 the students in Cordoba provided a new identity for the Latin American university along with a distinct ethos that led to the creation of a new academic space.

Unfortunately, that innovative spirit represented by early 20th century reforms has vanished, and higher education in the region again faces an enormous set of challenges and the need for a new era of dramatic reform.


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Lack of political and economic stability, coupled with the limited attractiveness of the academic profession in terms of salaries, prestige and working conditions, have led to massive brain drain in many LAC countries. Relative political stability and steady economic development in recent years have helped to highlight the importance of research universities and the relevance of science, technology and innovation for sustainable growth. Unprecedented changes have occurred at a rather rapid rate in recent years, including considerable growth of post-secondary opportunities, greater quantity and quality of research in many countries, and the establishment of higher education evaluations and accreditations.

For some time, LAC countries tended to insulate their local research community from the region and the rest of the world. Now it is more common to see institutional efforts towards international collaboration, primarily with North America and Europe. LAC nations still have unexploited potential to develop their science and technology endeavours within the region, given cultural and language affinities. This could lead to important linkages and the consolidation of research agendas among LAC countries. Research programmes in the region, however, require a complete overhaul. Commitment to research and innovation as vectors to development, consistent funding, reduction of bureaucracy, coherence among different programmes for improved effectiveness and simplification of the regulatory environment to allow for more cooperative efforts must be addressed to facilitate effective international cooperation.

The issue of expanding access to higher education, with the corresponding challenges of economic sustainability, quality and social inclusion, is a challenge common to the region as a whole. The higher education system in most LAC countries is based on a few research-oriented public universities responsible for the education of the social and economic elite, leaving the massification of enrolment in higher education to be addressed by the private system. Paradoxically, the lower-income population of most of these countries tends to be concentrated in the private system while the public, tuition-free institutions tend to serve the wealthier sectors of the population. While most countries have expanded access enormously, many still lag behind, especially in Central America. Where access has increased fast, countries are now dealing with the detrimental effects on quality, and the management of unplanned expansion. Accreditation and other quality control mechanisms are now common in the region and have had some beneficial impact on promoting improvement.

In this context of expansion, it is worth noting that only a few nations in the region have clear long-term strategies for the tertiary education sector. Instead, most countries too often rely on sporadic, short-term, poorly thought-out and unsustainable plans to “solve” all the issues in higher education.

Public universities have provided great service to their host countries and societies, but robust changes are needed. Governance structures and practices are obsolete. They have developed in a strongly corporatist atmosphere that hinders further development, even at the best public universities. These institutions need to be more accountable to stakeholders and incorporate modern practices and processes. The question is whether they are prepared to move to the next step with innovative governance structures as demanded from the knowledge society.

A younger generation of scholars, largely better trained for research than their predecessors, find it hard to land academic jobs in universities clogged with ageing professors who cling to their posts because retirement tends to be financially ruinous. An academic career is not attractive in most countries in the region and, as a result, extremely talented young scholars and professionals trained at high cost by their countries are increasingly finding opportunities elsewhere. Good results and practices exist in some parts of the system despite, not because of, governing structures of the region’s universities, their bureaucratic administrative procedures, reduced salaries, stressful environment and uncertain future. Unfortunately, the lack of comprehensive and strategic policies, this time at the institutional level, hinders necessary change and development.

The higher education systems in the region must undergo a complete transformation, in effect planning the expansion of opportunities, providing effective quality assurance, rethinking curriculum development, defining desired student outcomes, introducing modern teaching tools, and planning the diversification of the system while taking into account the global scenario and best practices for governance. As the region celebrates the reforming spirit of 1918, a century later, higher education must be reinvigorated, considering the great opportunities and potential of this region. As paradoxical as it may sound, Latin American higher education institutions must change to stay true to their fundamental values of democracy, ethics and a sustainable future.

Marcelo Knobel is rector of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil. Andrés Bernasconi is associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

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