Meeting of minds on the way forward for Latin America

From 4-6 March a unique summit took place in Cartagena, Colombia. Thirty scholars and experts from six countries in Latin America and the United States discussed the future of higher education in the region. Among the experts from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay were also former and current World Bank higher education coordinators Jamil Salmi and Francisco Marmolejo.

The initiative for holding the summit came from Liz Reisberg, a doctoral graduate and current research fellow of the Center for International Higher Education, or CIHE, at Boston College in the US, who invited colleagues she has been working with over the years to meet in an informal way and at their own private expense without any agenda to see what the challenges and needs for higher education are in the region.

The response was great and for the first time a distinguished group, including Professor Simon Schwartzman from Brazil, Professor José Joaquín Brunner from Chile, Dr Salvador Malo from Mexico and other experts, met to focus on the region as a whole.

The summit started with a one-day conference at the Universidad del Norte, in cooperation with CIHE, in Barranquilla where, in three keynotes and nine panel sessions, the experts discussed the challenges for higher education in Latin America (covered in a keynote from Francisco Marmolejo), the future (Jamil Salmi) and internationalisation in the region (Hans de Wit).

The fact that 350 participants from all over Colombia and some neighbouring countries attended the conference and were able to interact with the speakers illustrates the uniqueness of the gathering and the need for information and debate about higher education in the region.

What is holding Latin America back?

From the presentations and the discussions during the summit, it became clear that higher education has evolved substantially over the past decades, but that not all the developments can be considered positive, that a lot still needs to be done and that higher education in the region is lagging behind that in other regions such as Asia.

Some of the challenges the experts singled out are a tendency to problematise rather than solve issues in higher education; the importance of higher education for innovation and the fact that change is not sufficiently recognised by national governments as well as the lack of a regional policy for higher education equivalent to the Bologna Process in Europe.

Several issues came to the forefront, such as diversity of access and systems, modernisation of governance structures, the transition process from secondary to higher education, postgraduate education and the need for changes in doctoral education (for instance, the development of professional doctorates), the public-private divide, the importance of investing in and focusing on the development of the academic profession, the role of and position of Latin American universities in (inter)national rankings, the lack of general education, fraud and corruption and so on.

The participants in the summit were very articulate in stating that there is an urgent need for change and innovation in higher education in the region.

Where, for instance, in the 1990s Latin American countries were at the forefront of quality assurance and accreditation, as María José Lemaitre, executive director of the Interuniversity Centre for Development or CINDA, mentioned, other regions are now pulling ahead, while in the region there is not much innovation, although some countries like Colombia are working hard on this.

The road forward

The summit did not intend to result in a report or a declaration as this would have limited the freedom to debate and look for potential opportunities for further research. All participants agreed that it was important to keep meeting as a small informal group on an annual or biennial basis.

The group also decided to develop a platform for the exchange of information and ideas. A small working group will explore the need and opportunities for the creation of an Association of Scholars of Higher Education in Latin America.

It was also decided that a small working group would develop a plan for a bilingual journal of higher education in Latin America similar to CIHE’s International Higher Education – which is already available in Spanish and Portuguese – but specifically focused on and for the region. In this way the participants hope to be able to stimulate and influence the debate on higher education in Latin America.

Several of the experts present at the Cartagena meeting took part in a meeting organised by the World Bank in Bogotá in Colombia from 7-9 March, which also discussed the future of higher education in Latin America.

The "From Good Ideas to Action" meeting was based on four discussion papers on internationalisation and academic and professional mobility; quality assurance in higher education; the formation of human capital, innovation and research; and training of teachers.

During the meeting ideas on how to enhance the quality of higher education in the region and how to assure a regional policy for higher education were discussed as a basis for further action by the World Bank and national governments in the region.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: Liz Reisberg is a research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Email: