Universities are trying to woo Northern students

Latin American universities are taking steps to attract English-speaking students who may have ignored the region previously, by offering more courses in English and seeking accreditation in the United States.

Universities from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego are part of an increased push to make campuses more inviting for students from the northern hemisphere, said Fernando Leon Garcia, president of Mexico’s private university, CETYS – Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superio.

CETYS, which has campuses in the northern cities of Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada, is one of five Mexican universities accredited by United States organisations, Leon Garcia said.

Costa Rica and Chile each have one accredited university, and other Latin American institutions are seeking US certification to gain credibility among northern students.

“There are quite a few petitions on the table,” he said. “Right now, the gold standard [for quality] is the US.”

Latin American innovation will be among the topics discussed at this month’s semi-annual conference of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) in Guadalajara, Mexico. It is being held from 13-17 March, and among other things will look at the future of Latin American higher education.

Universities across the region are discussing how to connect more effectively with the English-speaking world, said Leon Garcia, one of the conference’s hosts along with Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara.

The discussions “need to capture the needs of different regions and connect the emerging economies with the developed economies”.

Language and student mobility

Language barriers continue to thwart those efforts, he said. Few Latin American universities offer courses in English, and not enough US, Canadian and European students speak Spanish or Portuguese.

“Language is generally a problem in Latin American countries when it comes to communicating with developed economies,” Leon Garcia pointed out. “On the other hand, developed economies are too comfortable going with the de facto business language, which is English.”

A handful of Latin American institutions are offering courses in English. CETYS, for example, plans to provide 10% of its curriculum in English, Leon Garcia said, and will have entire English-language degree programmes by 2014.

The innovations are being driven partly by a White House initiative called “100,000 Strong in the Americas”.

Launched in 2011 by President Barack Obama and modelled after his 2009 collaboration with China, the initiative aims to double the number of US college students studying in Latin America and the Caribbean and to attract more students from those regions to US universities in less than a decade.

In 2011, 40,000 US students were studying in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to White House figures.

Brazil, meanwhile, is undertaking its own initiative, “Science Without Frontiers”, to send 100,000 of its students to other countries to train in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Developed nations such as the US and Canada have good reasons to focus on Latin America’s poorer countries, said Leon Garcia.

“The world’s future workforce will be increasingly dependent on emerging economies,” he said. “If you look at how the world is changing, players are being redefined.

“There’s no better time to act than now, and there’s no better way to do it than through higher education.”

Universities need to work together

Some Latin American university leaders, including Leon Garcia, say the region’s universities need to work together to improve their collective fortunes. Universities in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, have collaborated successfully.

Perhaps the region’s most successful collaboration is Universia, with more than 1,200 universities in 23 countries. Funded by Spain’s Santander Bank, the initiative is meant primarily to connect universities with industry.

A handful of countries, mostly in South America, have forged their own higher education agreements, and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 helped Mexican universities gain minor traction in the US and Canada.

But the region needs to do a better job looking out for its own, Leon Garcia said, or Latin America risks losing economic ground if the multinationals setting up shop in Latin America look for better-educated work forces elsewhere.

“We have to increase our opportunities.”