Latin America University Rankings 2022: dream teams

Multidisciplinary teamwork is helping tackle problems in Latin America, but barriers remain 

July 14, 2022
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Denise Pires de Carvalho, president of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is assembling multidisciplinary teams to tackle four of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the leader of Brazil’s largest federal university, whether you describe such teams as multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or interdisciplinary, groups of academics coming together to solve real-world problems is the future of academia. “If society has a question, it has to be answered by multidisciplinary teams,” Carvalho says. “The 21st century is a century of more cooperation, in networks, and we have to work together to solve problems.”

A plus side of the pandemic is that it encouraged the convening of such teams, she says. Groups formed to tackle Covid-19, starting with epidemiologists, who were then joined by chemists, biologists, computational systems experts and more, until “we have groups that are specialists, but they are multidisciplinary, they are addressing questions that doctors [alone] cannot answer.”

“Now our challenge is to make these kinds of groups answer other questions,” she says.

Federico Vasen, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires and an expert in higher education, says there has been a rise in multidisciplinary teams put together to tackle local problems across Latin America.

“There are some topics, maybe linked to agricultural development or some other natural resources, that are very important for our economies, and they need to be approached in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary ways,” Vasen says. He outlines a project in northern Argentina, a poor region where lithium is abundant, where the government has backed a lithium research centre to industrialise the region and build knowledge of the metal and batteries. Instead of simply exporting the resource, the region will gain research and innovation capacity.

“We need interdisciplinarity, but not just because it’s good in itself but because it’s a way to be more impactful as a science system,” Vasen says.

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At Monterrey Institute of Technology, a Mexican university ranked fifth in Latin America, problem-based interdisciplinary teamwork has been the norm in teaching since 1995, and the institution is now applying the concept to research.

José Escamilla, director of the Institute for the Future of Education at  Monterrey Institute of Technology, explains that students spend half their time working in teams on real-world challenges, which are defined by a partner organisation such as the government, an NGO or a business. “Challenges are interdisciplinary in nature. And those challenges have learning models attached to them so that the students have the knowledge they need, just in time to apply it in solving this real-world challenge.”

Their education model is based around competencies, he says, and all students are taught disciplinary and non-disciplinary competencies.

When the students begin their studies, the challenges are shorter and narrower in nature, but they get more complex as the degree goes on. One example of a challenge is students working with the government on how to reduce the number of patients on the waiting list for mental health support; another is working with a car manufacturer on solving a quality issue, or an NGO working to make use of surplus food and distribute it to vulnerable communities.

They believe the approach works because students are more passionate, and they are “fulfilling one of the objectives of the university, that is to serve society”. Escamilla is clear, though, that this approach to education takes up more staff time. “We believe that there’s an increase in the time that you have to allocate to do the same things.”

Monterrey Institute of Technology may be the only university in the world applying problem-based learning at this scale. “The world is not divided into disciplines,” says Escamilla.

The success of multidisciplinary teamwork-based learning led the university to initiate the same with research, and it aims to have three multidisciplinary institutes by 2025. The first is the Institute for the Future of Education, of which Escamilla is associate director, which is working to improve higher education and lifelong learning.

“You can look at education from the disciplinary view of education, that is very important and relevant and is essential. But also you can use technology and education, you can introduce a psychological view of the impact of mental health and motivation in education…and also the development of architectural spaces that are well suited for active learning. These are just some examples of how you can create a more holistic solution to these big educational challenges.”

Vasen explains that the importance of multidisciplinary teams to tackle local problems is well understood by governments and funding bodies, but it is universities themselves that are hindering progress. “Science policies and science funding initiatives, they promote interdisciplinary approaches…then when researchers and professors need to apply for tenure or need to be promoted, or even to be hired, they are assessed in a very disciplinary way. They need to be a good biologist, a good philosopher, a good chemist. It’s not so important to be able to work [in an] interdisciplinary [way].”

Universities will need to find a way of rewarding academics who work on interdisciplinary projects if the approach is to have more of an impact, Vasen says.

Jamil Salmi, an education economist who has served as the coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme, has written that interdisciplinary working in Latin America is lagging behind much of the rest of the world. He tells Times Higher Education that it is a shame for the quality of research and teaching in the region. “If you believe in the SDGs, you know that the solutions are interdisciplinary.”

Salmi highlights some of the hindrances to interdisciplinarity in the region: “universities in Latin America are even more traditional than in other parts of the world”. There is an ideological resistance to ideas imposed by the US, and at the same time the region values free higher education and independence from government. These factors have combined to mean that “in a way, they’ve gotten stuck. And as a result, they are very conservative and any kind of change is resisted, including change of curriculum and pedagogical approaches,” Salmi says.

“Of course there are exceptions, there are some very dynamic universities that have evolved, but by and large it’s a very rigid traditional system,” he adds.

Salmi says that the different ways of encouraging interdisciplinary working are via teaching programmes and institutes, such as those at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, but also by offering funding incentives for interdisciplinary projects. “You start from a problem then look at which type of research would contribute to resolving that problem, that’s what you need to have an interdisciplinary approach.”

For Carvalho, president of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the will to encourage interdisciplinary problem-based research and teaching is there but the block is funding. The budget for higher education in Brazil has been significantly reduced, which makes the unfamiliarity of interdisciplinary projects less appealing, “if there is a small amount of money, and I’m addicted to working with my molecule, I don’t want to be challenged by someone that wants me to work with something different,” she says.

Carvalho explains that the university identified academics working on issues linked to all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. It did not have enough money to fund them all, but they have set up a call for four of these, including water and sanitation. “We have a low quality of water in our country. There must be multidisciplinary groups working on quality of water.”

It has also recently established a building focused on precision medicine. “There will be doctors, biologists, chemists, informaticians, people from different areas, they have to solve problems related to genomics,” Carvalho says.

“I think the future of universities is solving problems that come from society. [In the past] the questions were our question. They were not questions that come from society, in the future they will be…I think this is the future of universities all over the world.”

Does she think it could get to the point that there are no discipline-based departments at universities? She laughs. “This is the dream.”

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