Providing good-quality higher education to low-income and middle-class students in Latin America and the Caribbean who are joining universities and technical colleges in droves, is a big challenge for this group of countries, according to a World Bank report released on 17 May.
At a Crossroads: Higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean focuses on the diversity, quality and equity of higher education in a region where the proportion of those enrolled who are between 18 and 24 years of age has doubled over the past 15 years from 20% to 40%.
“Higher education is key to boosting growth and reducing poverty and inequality,” said Jorge Familiar, World Bank vice-president for Latin America and the Caribbean. “To ensure equity of opportunities, the region has to enhance quality of education and provide students with better information on programmes, adequate incentives and financing options, and connections to the labour market. Better regulation of higher education institutions is also needed.”
Population increase and more supply – a quarter of today’s higher education institutions in Latin American and Caribbean countries opened after 2000 – account for the great expansion of higher education in the region. Many of the new students come from low-income groups: on average, in 2000 only 16% of higher education students came from the bottom half by income of the population compared to 23% at present.
“Though we have gained in equality, the poorest 50% accounts for just 25% of higher education students; access rates for the richest 20% is 55% but only 10% for the poorest 20%,” said María Marta Ferreyra, World Bank senior economist and the report's main author.
Graduates and drop-out rates
Many of the poorest students are among the nearly half of enrollees in higher education institutions who do not graduate. “Low-income students are bedevilled by a lower level of education and an unfavourable social environment; assisting them financially is crucial for reducing the income gap,” Ferreyra adds.
The report also attributes high drop-out rates in Latin America and the Caribbean to the long duration of some degrees, to difficulties in switching to a new subject of study and onerous graduation requirements.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, a higher education degree is a social mobility tool only for some.
“Not every student gains access to a quality option that ensures that graduates do make a contribution to the economy and to their families. In Chile, for example, student protests are rife despite being “a country where enrolment rates mirror that of much richer countries and which accomplished a tremendous, equitable expansion in a very short time”, the report says.
Improving the quality of the educational programmes on offer requires good regulations and supervision systems as well as ways of measuring the added value of obtaining a higher education degree. Javier Rojas, from the Mexican Centre for Research and Teaching of Economics or CIDE, insisted at the report’s launch that every country should have a national quality assurance system.
Even if socially-disadvantaged students pay no tuition fees or receive grants, scholarships or soft credit, the question remains whether it was worth their effort. Though in Latin America and the Caribbean, on average, a higher education graduate earns 50% more than somebody who has no degree, one in 10 graduates have negative net returns “so they would be better off if they did not study at all”, Ferreyra says.
The report underlines the need to provide more information on employment and salary prospects of the various degrees and institutions so that students can make informed choices.
For higher education to maximise each person’s potential and meet the economy’s skill needs, the region requires more efficient and equitable funding systems. Additional resources are also needed for remedial education, tutoring, monitoring or advising students who are not academically ready. The quality of public primary and secondary education must improve so that students applying to higher education institutions are better prepared.
Finally, a favourable national environment which, for example, promotes innovation and where firms create good jobs for a more skilled labour force, is essential for meeting higher education aspirations in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Otherwise, we will always be asking the impossible of higher education,” Ferreyra concludes.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters