Does the so-called “Latin American-university” exist? Are there specific characteristics that distinguish universities in Latin America from other institutions around the globe in terms of culture and their own needs?
The answer is yes. There are features common to universities in our region and, as president of Brazil’s largest university, I believe it is our responsibility to define them in a coherent manner. The keywords necessary to understand Brazil – as well as Latin America – are heterogeneity and complexity.
A clear indicator of Latin America’s diversity is the wide gross domestic product spectrum among its nations: three countries alone represent 70 per cent of the region’s GDP; the other 14 countries constitute the remaining 30 per cent. A comparison, drawn from indicators from Brazil, Chile and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, points towards a great disparity in the region: a clear example is the difference in the percentage of young people who complete their undergraduate degree. Furthermore, the amount of private investment in higher education is uneven among the different Latin American nations.
A major goal for governments in the region is to increase the proportion of young adults who complete their higher education degree: if this percentage is small, there will be greater income disparity. It is important to note that, in Latin America, the income of those carrying a university degree is up to two and a half times higher than their job market competitors who completed only secondary school.
Graduate education – including master’s and doctoral degrees – has undergone a significant expansion over the past decade, particularly in Brazil. However, in terms of the numbers of scientists, the region does not achieve standards as high as those observed in North American, European and some Asian countries. It is to be noted that private investments in science and technology increase with a higher concentration of scientists.
The expansion of higher education in some Latin American countries has been remarkable. Particularly notable is the huge increase in undergraduate student admissions between 1970 and 1990 in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico, according to figures from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the São Paulo Research Foundation (Fapesp).
There is, however, a significant difference in university admissions criteria among the aforementioned nations. In Argentina and Mexico, students are admitted without quantitative restrictions, whereas in Brazil there is a fixed rate of yearly admission for each programme of study, and students compete by means of an entrance exam.
Brazil, with a population of 200 million, has about 7.3 million university students – 1 million of those complete their degrees every year, a 25-fold growth rate over the past 50 years, data from the IBGE, Fapesp and CNPq show. There are more than 2,000 higher education institutions in the country, of which 200 are universities.
It is also relevant to observe that the growth rate in Brazil took place with the expansion of private education – for-profit organisations currently educate 75 per cent of all Brazilian students. Some studies indicate that the quality of education in the private sector is not as high as in the public sector. As a consequence, some of the students graduating from private institutions are not as well prepared for the job market as those graduating from public universities. The growth of private higher education institutions has also taken place in other countries in the region, but nowhere as significantly as in Brazil.
Heterogeneity is a prominent feature of universities in Latin America. For centuries, teaching and research have been the two traditional pillars of university life. However, in recent years, another mission has emerged as an important hallmark of the Latin American-university. This third mission involves activities that link the university with its community or region, bringing technology transfer into the local productive system; participation in seeking solutions to socially relevant questions including education, health, culture and agriculture; and contributions to shaping public policies.
A university’s links to its local or regional community and its role and influence in the life of its city, state or country are probably the most important determinants of an institution’s relevance, especially in Latin America. Nevertheless, these aspects are rarely, or only superficially, considered by most rankings.
Thus, it seems that the key issues for higher education in the region today are related to development, access, quality and pertinence to local socio-economic needs. To expand inclusion and to achieve higher standards, Latin American countries must accept the existence of a wide diversity among higher education institutions in the region.
So the three most important challenges for Latin American universities are: allowing access to students regardless of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds; providing quality education, with external evaluation and certification, while taking local and global needs into consideration; and strengthening the role of research.
With this in mind, there are three important strategies for the region’s research universities: promotion of interdisciplinary research, support of entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer, and cooperation.
Instead of promoting a few large universities, we should motivate a greater network of diverse universities, in accordance with their regional needs and aspirations.
Marco Antonio Zago
University of São Paulo