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Towards an Ibero-American higher education space

Universia is a network of universities in Latin America, Spain and Portugal sponsored by the Santander banking group. University World News caught up with Universia Mexico Director General Arturo Cherbowski Lask to talk about Latin American universities’ ability to adapt to a changing world and the development of an Ibero-American higher education space.

The location was CETYS University system in Mexico, which hosted an International Seminar on Innovation in Higher Education at its campus in Mexicali from 18-20 September as part of the university’s 55th anniversary celebrations.

UWN: What are the main issues Latin American universities need to respond to in a changing world?

Cherbowski: I have a somewhat different perspective on these issues because I’m not currently working at a university but for an organisation whose vocation and dedication is to help universities network, generate programmes and value-added initiatives, and face up to their institutional problems.

Universia is probably the largest network of university collaboration in the world, with more than 2,000 universities working together to solve different issues. Among them is the issue of innovation, and the relationship of innovation to the effects of disruptive technologies and what that generates in the psyche of the institutions we work with. It is becoming the main issue for all the universities we collaborate with.

UWN: How are universities preparing for this revolution?

Cherbowski: Sometimes we say the revolution is coming but there was a sense among university presidents meeting here that the revolution was already here. Part of it is what to do about that revolution and what that means for universities.

Somebody said here at the seminar, and I think very wisely, that universities will survive. They will survive because they are millennial institutions. Western universities, at least, are 1,000 years old and they have been flexible enough to adapt, to change and survive in their models.

But we are facing tremendous change. The organisation I represent works for a bank [Banco Santander in Spain] and the banking industry is in a complete furore because we see fintech coming at us at tremendous speed and we are like deer in the headlights, not knowing what to do. We see all these surveys done by all the consultancies in the world, telling us that 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds would rather go to the dentist than walk into a bank.

I see universities slightly in the same situation – soon we’ll be seeing young people who say they would rather go to the dentist than go to a university because universities are no longer offering services in the ways they have come to expect and they can get alternatives in the library that would actually be much better for them.

What this generates is tremendous anxiety and tremendous panic in universities. Yet in the face of this anxiety and panic I have seen some great examples of adaptation to change, examples of innovation.

UWN: Innovation is a word that gets bandied about an awful lot...

Cherbowski: It is overused. But the approach being looked at at this time is very interesting because it is a more integral, holistic approach.

It isn’t just about disruptive technologies or just thinking and saying it is innovation, but saying universities have to rethink their mission, their purpose, their governance, the role of faculty and students, if they want to say they are doing innovation. Innovation is not just changing the furniture or constructing a new building.

UWN: Does it require a large amount of money to adapt universities to what we see now as the future?

Cherbowski: One of the issues for universities is that they have a labour force they have to retool and retrain – I’m talking about faculty.

What do you do with faculty who have acquired rights over 30 years but who can no longer respond to the demands of new educational models that have to do with different ways of delivery and with competency-based learning?

The expenses of transforming universities to new models that are more amenable to disruptive technologies have to do with human resources – the retooling and repurposing of people who are working in universities – and not just the expense of infrastructure.

That universities are concerned about higher education innovation is something I already knew. But universities are starting to understand the problem is not ‘let’s go change the furnishing in the classroom and build a new building’ but a more profound issue to do with the model and concept of the university itself.

You can go out and invest in technology and in new buildings but if you are not thinking about the mission of the university in an integral way, you are not going to get very far. Universities are starting to take a deeper, more serene approach to innovation.

UWN: You have spoken in the past of an Ibero-Latin American higher education space. How do you formulate this – Spain and Portugal are part of the European Higher Education Area?

Cherbowski: It’s not contradictory. Spain and Portugal are part of the European educational space but there are also ties of identity, culture, language and history with Latin America so it makes perfect sense not just to talk of a Latin American space but an Ibero-American space, with the overlaps that this implies with the European Union.

In many senses it would be tremendous to emulate some of the achievements of the European Higher Education Area in terms of mobility, exchanges, recognition of credits, of titles – all that inter-university collaboration which right now does not happen much in the Ibero-American context.

In Latin America we still have barriers in many areas, such as mutual recognition of credits and quality floors and quality ceilings, that would allow us to promulgate study plans and curricula, and the value of degrees.

Funding is an issue. In Latin American higher education we don’t have the kind of funding, public and private, that has gone into creating something as tremendous as the Erasmus programme in the European Union.

So the idea of generating an Ibero-American space is to emulate some of these European achievements but obviously in the context of Latin American institutions.

UWN: The elephant in the room is harmonisation, that’s what creates the European Higher Education Area.

Cherbowski: It was the elephant but it is no longer the elephant because as you know the joke is the elephant is standing there in the middle of the room and nobody talks about it. So the elephant is there but it is now the acknowledged elephant; we are talking about it.

We are talking about the fact that there are many roadblocks and impediments to the full harmonisation that was achieved in the European higher education space but is not the case with Latin America.

Latin American universities are completely heterogeneous – big public universities, private universities, confessional universities, small universities.

But in the end I think the biggest issue for harmonisation is the wide range of quality systems, of accreditation, of rankings; therefore they have a very hard time acknowledging the credits and titles and degrees from one university to another.

Sometimes it seems impossible, but there are efforts to generate the mechanisms or to start working towards that harmonisation. Would it be an immediate success or an immediate accomplishment? Probably not. Because the difficulties, the obstacles, are very large.

A lot of universities in the region continue to have low indices of mobility and low internationalisation, so we are working with more universities to send more students abroad and receive more students from abroad. We are working with universities to bring more faculty from other universities.

You’ll say, yes, but that’s not going to accomplish harmonisation. No, but it will get some of the actors together in the room, it will start generating networks, it will start generating meetings and perhaps concrete projects will come from this.

The other thing that we do often, and it’s the way to construct harmonisation regardless of the obstacles, is to bring university presidents and rectors and chancellors from all these heterogeneous and varied institutions from all over the continent, to talk about different issues and to start working together. It’s very important that they start knowing each other and start building relationships of trust and personal relationships because that helps to generate a common front.

UWN: What are the models of harmonisation? It can’t just be the European Union model...

Cherbowski: The political economy of Latin American universities is very different from European universities. I don’t think there is a model yet because we are still working on some of the issues prior to constructing a model of harmonisation.

As of now, there is not a common system of quality assurance and accreditation for Latin America. Each country has its own. There are some bilateral agreements between universities where they agree to recognise each other but there is not such a thing as Latin American accreditation or Latin American quality assurance.

If we don’t have something that is recognised in the whole region, then it’s very hard to achieve an alternative model of harmonisation.

UWN: In what areas have there been advances?

Cherbowski: There are interesting efforts. UDUAL [Association of Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean] is working on an accreditation methodology for universities in the region.

Mexican universities, both public and private, have been working together and have been meeting in talks with some organisations such as CHEA [Council for Higher Education Accreditation] for quality assurance issues.

The organisation of Mexican universities, the representatives of the real universities, both FIMPES [Federation of Mexican Institutions of Higher Education] and ANUIES [National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions], have been in talks and working on a quality assurance initiative in dialogue with CHEA.

The other area where there have been advances is in funding. All of this costs money. The funding has not been public as much as it has been private.

Without tooting our own horn, I can say we are the biggest private funder for scholarships to foster internationalisation and mobility in the Latin American region. The overall amount for the whole Ibero-American region is about €250 million (US$280 million) a year, more or less, for all sorts of help for universities in the region.

* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.

Related Links
A vision of intra-regional cooperation and exchange
Latin America must build on intra-regional cooperation
Major progress, but HE struggles to internationalise
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