Higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean occupies an intriguing position on the world stage – it has faced unprecedented change at a rapid pace in the past few decades while simultaneously remaining largely detached from worldwide trends.
The most salient development of the past four decades has been the expansion in enrolments. As the US sociologist of higher education Martin Trow famously noted in 1973, all changes in higher education are connected to growth, and this is also the case in Latin America and the Caribbean.
While the region is enormously heterogeneous in its national higher education systems, most Latin American and Caribbean countries with more developed systems have a few, highly selective research-oriented universities at the apex (many of them with roots in the 19th century or even before), which are the most prestigious and have the strongest academic culture. They are basically responsible for research and the education of the elites.
However, the absorption of the massive demand for tertiary studies falls to teaching-only institutions, usually private, newly created and less reputable. Paradoxically, it is the lower income population that is mainly attending these massive private systems, while public universities, which often charge no tuition fees, serve the wealthiest population.
In fact, expanding access to higher education, with the corresponding challenges of financial sustainability, quality and social inclusion, is a common challenge in the region.
Where access has increased fastest, countries are now dealing with the detrimental effects on quality of a rushed and often unplanned expansion. Accreditation and other quality control mechanisms are now common in the region, and they have had some beneficial impact in promoting internal evaluation and consequent improvement.
But the effect of this and other policies is felt mostly at the lower rungs of the prestige totem pole of higher education institutions, where institutions are weaker, enjoy less political protection, depend on enrolments to survive, and therefore have to adapt quickly to the demands of the market or changes in the regulatory environment as a matter of survival.
Change has been longer in coming to the top of the higher education systems, especially in public universities. These universities have provided great service to their countries and their societies. The question is whether they are prepared to move to the next step required in the development of the knowledge society.
In most cases, their governance structures and practices are obsolete and corporatism acts as a major driving force, usually blocking much-needed change. Universities resist the idea of being more accountable to external stakeholders. Good management and long-term planning are either scorned or beyond the capabilities of the leaders, who are usually elected by faculty, staff and students.
Increasingly, the academic career, under these rules and practices, becomes less attractive to young talents, who now have many possible paths in a highly competitive global market. The ones who stay find universities often strapped for resources, extremely bureaucratic and yet full of entrenched senior faculty of questionable productivity. Despite the governing arrangements of the universities and their administrative procedures, oases of high-quality work exist in many places.
Evidently, states have their share of responsibility, too: besides political and economic instability, pointless bureaucracy, insane restrictions on imports of scientific equipment and supplies, outdated visa procedures, among other limitations, public universities are usually underfunded.
Generally speaking, there is a lack of understanding about the fundamental role universities play in the sustainable development of the countries. Coupled with a reluctance to impinge on university autonomy, governments prefer to leave universities alone.
Among the substantial challenges that Latin American higher education needs to overcome in order to position itself firmly in the 21st century, internationalisation is a prime example. While most institutions in the region would claim internationalisation as a fundamental pillar in contemporary higher education, the internationalisation strategies in place today are neither comprehensive nor integrated, and they risk diffusing their effects, or, at best, perpetuating an already unbalanced higher education system.
Although universities are more aware of the importance of increasing their international profiles, strategies and activities, their focus is still on outbound credit mobility of students and short-term research mobility of faculty, as part of human capacity and research development. Cultivating their attractiveness for international students and faculty is a less developed trait. International partnerships are many in number but irrelevant to strategy. Internationalisation at home is not a strategic priority either.
At the national level, some countries have recently begun to develop international strategies, most of them in the form of scholarship programmes. Although at the continental level some sub-regional agreements have emerged, as a whole, there are no policies for higher education and its international dimensions, as one finds in other regions of the world.
In 2005, the World Bank published the study Higher Education in Latin America: The International Dimension. It noted that internationalisation in the region was still in an early stage of development, focused more on the mobility of students and staff than on other dimensions and activities. It lacked strategic priority and coordination at the institutional, regional and national levels, and was more directed to cooperation with North America and Europe than to working with other countries in the region and other parts of the world. One of the challenges of internationalisation in Latin America and the Caribbean, as identified by this report, was achieving greater connection with the global higher education community.
A second challenge was trying to find a balance between the increasing competitiveness and commercialisation in higher education, on one hand, and higher education as a public good on the other. Also highlighted was the need to find a balance between the local culture and the pressures of harmonisation and homogenisation at the global level. The situation has changed little since the publication of the study, more than 10 years ago.
According to a more recent International Association of Universities report, titled Internationalization of Higher Education: Growing Expectations, Fundamental Values, government policies are now ranked as the first driver of internationalisation, ahead of business and industry. A rise in government funding was also reported. Both elements suggest an increased interest among governments in the region to foster internationalisation.
Nevertheless, although all regions report an increase in the importance assigned to the policy of internationalisation, only 51 per cent of leaders of higher education institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean assign a high level of importance to internationalisation, while in Europe, the comparable figure is 71 per cent. Latin America and the Caribbean has a lower percentage of institutions with internationalisation policies in place (47 per cent) than the world average (53 per cent).
Latin America has tremendous potential to be competitive for international talent, and to make its universities, and society, more international in perspective. However, to date, there are apparently no national and regional-level plans or projects along these lines. This should be a major concern to all who hold positions of responsibility in the educational process, as it is already happening in many places around the world.
The internationalisation movement is growing, and Latin America and the Caribbean must actively participate in it to be globally competitive. Unfortunately, the lack of comprehensive and strategic policies and plans not only hinders the internationalisation of universities in the region but also many other dimensions of the higher education scene.
The higher education system must undergo a complete transformation, in effect planning how to achieve an expansion of offer, quality assurance, student permanence and diversification and tackle other relevant challenges, taking into account the world scenario and best governance practices.
Director of the Brazilian National Nanotechnology Laboratory and professor of physics,
State University of Campinas
Associate professor and vice-dean in the School of Education,
Pontifical Catholic University of Chile