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Uneven development leaves private institutions on top

The second edition of the Times Higher Education or THE Latin American university rankings, released last month, highlights the uneven educational development that prevails in the region. The THE ranking expanded from 50 institutions in 2016 to 81 in 2017.

Brazil remained the dominant force with 32 institutions, followed by Chile (17), Mexico (13) and Colombia (11).

At first glance, the ranking looks intriguing because of its expansion, but only eight out of 20 countries are represented in the 2017 list, unchanged on the 2016 figures. In this sense, there is little to distinguish between the institutions ranked (particularly those in the top 25) because a key limitation of the ranking is that the publication threshold for inclusion is 1,000 papers over a five-year period.

There were only 157 out of the 530 institutions recorded in Elsevier’s Scopus (as of July 2017) that satisfied this threshold based on number of publications. Latin American universities are yet to succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ fever and the push for managerialism that we have seen in other regions.

Movers and shakers

Unranked in 2016, the Universidade Federal de São Paulo or UNIFESP is now seventh, and is also joined by the Universidade Federal de São Carlos, the Universidade de Brasilia (all in Brazil) and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, now ranked 18th to 20th, respectively.

Universidade Estadual de Campinas traded places with the Universidade de São Paulo (both in Brazil) for top and second positions. Colombia’s highest ranked institution is the Universidad de los Andes, which moved up five places to fifth position. While the Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico) moved up two places to sixth, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM moved down one position to 10th.


Following concerns about omissions in and the limitations of the THE 2016 Latin American rankings, THE has published comprehensive explanations about the omission of institutions in the 2017 edition. The newsworthiness of the THE 2017 rankings comes from these explanations.

THE notes that such omissions are due to insufficient or non-submission of data and also insufficient publications recorded in Scopus.

THE’s Phil Baty reports that 19 institutions were left off the ranking due to insufficient publications. Some of these are well below the required five-year threshold of 1,000 publications. For example, Mexico’s CETYS Universidad and Universidad de Celaya, and Costa Rica’s Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología have produced fewer than 50 papers each during the 2012-15 period.

Nine institutions are also listed as providing insufficient data for the 2017 edition. This explains why the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú was omitted even though it ranked 25th in 2016.

Lastly, THE lists 13 institutions that opted not to respond to THE requests for information. It is not uncommon that such requests do not get to the intended recipients or remain unanswered, in part because of technological deficiencies or outdated contact details at many institutions.

Should Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de La Plata and Peru’s Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos have replied, they would have been ranked because their volume of publications exceeds the minimum threshold.

Fortunate institutions

THE has been generous to five institutions by ranking them in the 71-80 band. According to Elsevier’s Scopus these institutions have between 250 and 700 publications in the required five-year period.

These are Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira, Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas (both from Colombia), Universidad Católica de Temuco in Chile, Universidade do Vale do Itajai in Brazil and Universidad Popular Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico.

Looking ahead

There are now more than 24 million students enrolled in higher education in the Latin American and the Caribbean region and it is projected that this number will be about 59 million by 2035. Private provision is the dominant force (accounting for more than 50% of enrolments in many countries). Therefore, it is not surprising that private institutions outperform the under-funded older, large, public universities.

For many decades now, there has not been the significant increase in investment needed to support public provision of higher education in the region. Yet the social mandate of Latin America’s public universities goes beyond educating the masses – for example, Mexico’s UNAM hosts the national library and national seismological service and its main campus is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Public universities tend to be perceived as delivering a poor quality of education, however, and the various ranking schemas, rightly or wrongly, bear witness to this concerning development.

Over- and under-representation

In terms of national performance, Chilean universities are well represented in the various rankings, partly due to being early adopters of economic reform years ago. Colombia is another national system that has embraced economic liberalisation and market-oriented educational reform.

By contrast, Argentina is under-represented in the various rankings. There are emerging signs that change is occurring. The performance of Mexican universities remains weak, but their ability to improve should not be underestimated.

Peru and Ecuador are making steady advances in higher education reforms and we are likely to see their universities rise in the various rankings in years to come.

The Universidad de Costa Rica (ranked 41-45 in THE but 18th in the QS Latin American rankings) will remain the leading Central American university until others in the region find a way to compete in the ranking games.

As both THE and QS expand their Latin American rankings in years to come, we shall see new entrants challenge the standing of middle-ranked institutions. Weaker universities in Chile, Colombia and Brazil will need to address issues of quality, staff capacity, internationalisation of curricula and research intensity to counteract the growing influence of emerging universities.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. He is a member of the advisory board to the QS World University Rankings.
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