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.
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.
Researcher, Centre for Advanced Research in Education
University of Chile