BRICS & Emerging Economies University Rankings 2017: how to make Latin America’s universities stronger

Heavy investment in research and professional development will help the region make headway, explains Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela

November 30, 2016
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Latin American universities are not performing well in international rankings. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017, the University of São Paulo is located in the highest position (251-300), followed by Brazil’s State University of Campinas (401-500). Meanwhile, Mexico’s top performer is the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (501-600).

These poor results are not surprising. Most of the indicators on which these rankings are based are focused mainly on research, which is not one of the strengths of Latin American universities. In a blog post for THE, I referred to the low investment in research and development in the region (with Brazil as an exception) as one of the factors that explain this poor performance in world rankings.

Another factor is the university profile. Despite the fact that there has been an explosion of enrolments in the region (with Chile and Argentina leading the field), most of the new universities created to fulfil the demand for higher education are private universities, with a focus on forming professionals rather than conducting research. This is the case in Chile where only a few universities are research-oriented. Something similar is evident in Brazil and Colombia where only the most established universities conduct a significant amount of research.

A third challenge is the need to recruit more academics with doctoral degrees. Although the number of academics with a PhD has increased in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Mexico, more are needed. To achieve this, each country must concentrate on offering high-quality PhD programmes rather than investing huge amounts of public money in sending future academics abroad to study. And, once these academics have obtained a PhD, they need to be offered a job. Chile, for example, through a sustained public policy, has invested substantial amounts of money in educating PhD students in the world’s best universities, and now these fledgling academics are facing difficulties in obtaining academic positions that allow them to develop and strengthen their research capacities.

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A fourth challenge resides in publishing in leading journals. Slowly, more universities and academics in the region are aware of the importance of participating in an academic culture with a rigorous peer review process. They are also becoming interested in publishing in journals in English – Chile, Brazil and Colombia have made great progress in this respect. However, there is still some resistance towards what is seen by some scholars as part of academic capitalism and a type of colonisation from the global North. This is especially felt among older generations of academics from the social sciences and humanities. In the sciences, there is a stronger and longer tradition of publishing in English in high-impact journals.

Another important issue that Latin American universities need to address with some urgency is improving the teaching-learning processes as part of institutional and national policies of education. The key issues here include helping academics to teach better to promote deep and active learning among students, and creating reliable databases in relation to the students’ learning experiences. Mainly, universities in the region have developed very rudimentary instruments to collect students’ opinions. Also, the course review process is weak in that there is little action arising from students’ poor evaluations. In addition, there is no capacity to seriously compare course quality within and across institutions to analyse students’ progress, and to implement effective strategies to improve learning.

Since most of the universities in the region are teaching-oriented, more attention is needed to address the wider development of students in order to provide them with an education fit for the 21st century. This is part of the public role of universities not only in the sense of forming excellent professionals for the labour market, but, most importantly, in the sense of educating citizens for the social benefit of each Latin American country and the region as a whole.

Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela
Researcher, Centre for Advanced Research in Education
University of Chile


Print headline: Turning the ship around

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Reader's comments (1)

Writing from another Centre of Advanced Research in Mexico City, I share with Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela the preoccupation of how to strengthen science in Latin America societies - without for a moment suggesting that the mission is accomplished elsewhere in the world. Dr Guzmán-Valenzuela is of course correct to start by pointing out the low investment in research and development in the region - after all as much as we would like Universities to be protected from political interference, they never operate outside of the 'polis'; one should also examine in this part of the world decision-making over resource-allocations. Change in attitudes on this problem has been the subject of a number of books written by my departmental colleague Marcelino Cereijido. I also agree that investment in public institutions is preferred over the private way of moving ahead. However, the usefulness of consulting university rankings or the proposal to focus on venues for publication of the research conducted is a matter of deep concern. Take for instance the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Not a single important decision can be taken in an informed way in Mexico, without the input of its best functioning public institution, which in addition educates a sizeable part of the country's youth. The UNAM has numerous institutes conducting high-level research and is self-driven by its mission to improve and the reliance of other sectors in Mexico on its judgment (the main legitimate external force along with the welcome criticisms of experts around the World). When I compare the UNAM’s ranking to a UK institution I know from within, I would raise eyebrows if I could control my incredulity. Likewise, publication venues should be looked at with caution. Not only is there a language barrier (after English was established as the major language for scientists); there are very few, if any, prestigious publishers that do not make use of their privilege to serve special interests, partnerships with industry, government, the scientific establishment in major countries (none from Latin America) - so despite the many positive inferences when work done in Latin America is accepted outside - the major criteria to judge scientific accomplishment needs to remain its understanding, scrutiny, testing, teaching etc. What I have seen here is much superior execution of these attributes - in the UK all this was left to outsiders to judge (journals, funders etc.) with minimal engagement within the institution. We are much closer to the Max-Planck Institute in Göttingen or the intramural programs of the NIH in Maryland. One might ask, so where are the marked achievements / contributions to knowledge coming out of Latin America? The answer is beyond the scope of this comment, but I wish to close with a final argument. Brasil benefited for a few years from a public investment in science and the results were spectacular for anyone who followed how science was invigorated and lives were changed. However, the new politics in that huge and diverse country have already reversed the situation. Interestingly, the concerted attack started first against their national petrol industry. In Mexico, the same has just occurred - PEMEX has been opened up to its competitors from wealthier economies - here the Government was complacent (some talk about treason). The argument is that science requires technology; technology can be generated or bought; as long as Latin America can be convinced to be a buyer and not a producer of technology, its higher education sector will remain inferior to the one of the selling countries.