Expanding higher education systems are ready for partnerships

Latin America as a region has been undergoing an important transformation for some decades. Education has played a pivotal role in the steady development of the region, and levels of participation in higher education have increased significantly over the past 40 years.

It is projected that by 2035 the region will have more than 59.4 million enrolments in higher education and that it will have the third most enrolments in the world, behind only East Asia and the Pacific, and South and West Asia.

In analysing the Latin American emerging markets for tertiary education, a group of countries stands out from the rest in the region as these countries are performing relatively well on a number of indicators, and their higher education national systems are more advanced.

They are Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Argentina. Mexico ought to be in this group, but it is lagging on a number of indicators, notably gross enrolment ratio (GER) for tertiary education as well as the proportion of the population who have completed secondary and tertiary education.

Another group of countries is behind the standouts of the region, but these countries are relatively small in terms of population and economy, or their national systems are still undergoing transformation.

These middle countries are Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela, which could be considered over the medium to long term as emerging markets for tertiary education.

Central American countries, with the exception of Costa Rica, are yet to undergo the transformative process that should put them in a competitive position in the region.

On a dimension-by-dimension basis, the countries that stand out positively are:
  • • Political: Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica – countries that have political stability.
  • • Business regulation: Chile, Colombia and Uruguay – countries that demonstrate a good business environment climate.
  • • Economic: Argentina, Chile and Uruguay – countries that rank highly in the Human Development Index.
  • • Social: Costa Rica and Cuba – countries with the highest life expectancy at birth and highest total expenditure on health and education.
  • • Education: Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela – countries that have the highest GER and rate of completion for both secondary and tertiary education (Cuba excluded as only partial data available).
  • • Technology: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile – countries with the highest score across the indicators used.
Individual countries

On a country-by-country basis, some observations are pertinent:
  • • While Brazil has a larger population base and economic growth above the world average, it is confronted with a number of challenges on several fronts. Its political and regulatory systems need to be strengthened.

    The prospects for expanding the higher education system are strong given its lower ratio of enrolments in tertiary education and percentage of population with completed tertiary education.

    It is likely that the demand for skills development and upskilling its population will remain strong for some years, creating considerable opportunities for student and staff mobility, international collaboration and institutional partnership.

  • • Chile has embarked on further educational reforms that are strongly opposed by students. The educational reforms being promoted by the government are aimed at further deregulating the sector.

    Chile commenced a process of liberalisation in the 1980s. This resulted in the emergence of private universities, which have taken market share away from public institutions but have also improved the country’s overall standing in university rankings.

  • • Argentina is a market that has reached a level of maturity. Its higher education system is unlikely to grow further unless reforms are undertaken to strengthen the quality of its institutions.

    Argentina is characterised by having the highest GER in tertiary education and the highest proportion of the population having completed higher education. It also has the highest rate of researchers engaged in research and development (R&D) per capita, as well as one of the highest R&D expenditures in the region.

  • • Colombia is one of the six countries that have been identified as the group of emerging economic nations, ranked second in importance to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

    The outlook for Colombia is positive in that its performance in the selected indicators suggests it is doing well and it continues to undergo economic and social reforms – similar to what Chile experienced for the past two decades.

  • • Although Mexico has also undertaken a number of economic and social reforms over the past three decades, it is behind in educational attainment at both the secondary and tertiary levels.

    One important characteristic of Mexico is that it has an internationally mobile population, an important contributing factor for international collaboration.
In summary, countries that present good opportunities for tertiary education development are Brazil and Mexico, on the basis of identified need due to population growth or economic renewal.

Chile and Colombia are two markets that have reformed their systems and would benefit from advancing R&D capability, as well as international academic standing. Differences in opportunities may exist between capital cities and the most populous urban centres, as they have various levels of development.

In terms of soundness and robustness of the overall education system, the standout is certainly Cuba, followed by Chile and Costa Rica. The common characteristic for these countries has been long-term expenditure by government in education and efforts to strengthen the various layers of their education systems.

Study abroad

In terms of outbound student mobility, the number of Latin American students seeking to study abroad is likely to continue to grow. In part this is due to the fact that living conditions are improving in many Latin American countries, which results in a greater number of people in the population being able to afford an education abroad.

In addition, several governments in the region are establishing scholarships for people to study abroad in order to boost economic growth and expand the skills base of their populations.

The growth is likely to come particularly from those who are seeking postgraduate qualifications, and particularly in the technology-driven, transformative and business-management disciplines.


Latin American universities would greatly benefit from international partnerships in a number of different spheres.

In the area of university governance, finance and administration would be of importance for some institutions and national systems, while for others their focus of attention would be on lifting academic standards and strengthening quality systems.

Of particular interest for many of the Latin American countries is the development of a robust vocational education and training sector that would deliver programmes to mitigate skills shortages in high-technology sectors and thriving export markets.

In terms of international collaboration for strengthening R&D, some Latin American countries are more engaged or active than others.

For example, Argentina shows a greater level of international collaboration when it comes to publishing papers compared to Brazil, but it is in Brazil where there are more journal papers published as well as a greater number of patent applications.

An important consideration to bear in mind is that not all Latin American countries have opened their education sectors to trade liberalisation; furthermore, there are various degrees of relative openness in terms of trade and business regulation in Latin America.

While there is considerable private provision of tertiary education, foreign market access is not necessarily open in some countries. Ideally, foreign universities would be best placed to partner with local institutions as that should contribute to improving and strengthening the quality of national systems.

Foreign institutions from non-Spanish-speaking or non-Portuguese-speaking countries seeking to enter the Latin American market – either for the purposes of international student mobility or commercial presence – will benefit if they have academic staff who speak the languages.

Furthermore, the success of delivery for any foreign institution’s courses to Latin American partners may depend on the ability to interact and overcome the relative psychological distance.

* Angel Calderon is principal advisor for planning and research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. This is an edited extract from the paper, “Latin American Perspectives and Drivers for Tertiary Education Development: A PEST analysis”, published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.