Asia a model for Latin American university innovation

Higher education, research and innovation have surged ahead in Asia in recent decades, but Latin America is lagging. In a changing world where young people need to be better prepared for jobs in a growing knowledge economy, Latin America needs to be more like Asia, said Andrés Oppenheimer, a journalist and commentator on innovation in Latin America.

“The future of our countries, Mexico and other Latin American nations, will be changed by innovation and science,” said Oppenheimer, author of a recent book Innovate or Die, at an international seminar on Innovation in Higher Education held at CETYS University, as Mexico’s Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior is commonly known.

“Latin America has enormous reserves of talent but we are not channelling them,” said Oppenheimer in a keynote speech that sparked debate among university leaders on the need for higher education in Latin America to adapt to global change.

“Latin America has a lot to learn from East Asia. It is undeniable that there is a greater culture of education in Asia,” he said, referring to the OECD’s standardised tests for 15-year-olds, PISA or Programme for International Student Assessment, which globally ranks performance and in which East Asian countries come out top while Latin American nations cluster towards the bottom.

“You see it in the university rankings; you see in the patenting records.”

Oppenheimer noted all Latin American countries together – including Brazil, the world’s eighth largest economy, and Mexico, the world’s 15th largest – filed just 1,216 patent applications with the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization in 2015.

“That’s less than 10% of the number filed by one country in Asia, South Korea, and fewer than tiny Israel.”

Global knowledge economy

Latin American countries, which rely heavily on commodity exports whose prices have plummeted in recent years, invest far less in innovation than North America, Europe and many Asian countries.

While South Korea spends 4% on research and development, and Japan and Finland 3.5%, most Latin American countries invest a paltry 0.5% in R&D, according to UNESCO figures, Oppenheimer pointed out.

“That’s bad news for the region because in the current global knowledge economy, new inventions are worth increasingly more than the raw material exported by most Latin American countries. Today, big technology companies such as Apple or Google are sometimes worth more than the economies of entire countries.

“Raw materials are going to become cheaper and cheaper and knowledge economy goods are going to become more and more expensive. It’s already happening. So we cannot continue pretending that we’re going to improve our standard of living and reduce poverty by continuing to sell the same goods [raw materials and agricultural produce] we were selling 300 years ago,” Oppenheimer told University World News in an interview.

“We have to be more innovative. We have to insert ourselves in the knowledge economy and diversify our exports, and higher education has a major role to play in that,” he said.

“We don’t emphasise excellence in our education systems. We need a greater culture of stressing the importance of education innovation. In Latin America, unlike in Asia, engineers are considered boring.”

Stuck in the past

Other Latin America university leaders attending the seminar held in Mexicali, Mexico, from 18-20 September agreed that the region was stuck in the past.

“Buildings are 19th century, teaching is 20th century, but students are in the 21st century,” as Sung Chull Lee, senior vice-president at South Korea’s Hanyang University, put it.

While university leaders from Latin America, North America, Europe and Asia felt sweeping comparisons were not helpful and each country and region needed to follow its own model, they concurred that higher education institutions must innovate to stay relevant – and in general, Asia has done this more successfully than Latin America.

Compared to some Asian countries, the curriculum in Latin American institutions, teaching methods and responses to changing industries and skills needs were way behind, some delegates said. Others said universities in Latin America were insular, slow to internationalise and often politicised.

“The most important thing Oppenheimer said is that for Latin America to change it must change its education system,” said Diego Mazo, president of CEIPA Business School, Colombia. “Education is not only about knowledge transmission.”

“Our cultures are different but the importance of education in Asia is definitely something to emulate,” said Fernando León Garcia, president of the CETYS University system, which has three campuses – in Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada – close to Mexico’s border with the United States.

“The path does not necessarily have to be the same, but there are some things that we can learn from Asia. These include greater investment and support for higher education,” said León, whose institution hosted the seminar as part of its 55th anniversary celebrations.

In addition, in some Asian countries “higher education is inextricably linked to what is done in industry – R&D, innovation is important there,” León said, adding: “We need to move in a direction where we applaud, recognise and promote greater innovation. This is not something we in Latin America do in a deliberate manner.”

Said Eda Machado de Souza, president of the Instituto de Educação Superior de Brasilia or Higher Education Institute of Brasilia: “In Brazil we are always mentioning South Korea as a model because they had huge growth for many years.”

Like others she noted that boosting innovation would need major changes to Brazil’s entire education system. While higher education is generally functioning well in the country, elementary and secondary education is not a priority and is underfunded.

This has a knock-on effect on quality of students as they enter higher education and their preparedness for a changing jobs environment, she argued.

Korea and Japan

But delegates from South Korea and Japan were more circumspect.

“Yes, in a short time we achieved a lot. We focused on rapid development and spent a lot of time on educating children,” said Lee of Hanyang University in Seoul. But he noted that Asian attitudes towards education did not always benefit young people who have been under huge pressure.

“In the 1950s we were one of the poorest countries in the world. Everything was destroyed in the civil war, and the country was justified in spending on education as it had few natural resources. Luckily South Korea achieved modernisation in a short period. Now the question is, should we stop and think? Should we slow down and emphasise other values?”

He described South Korea as needing more “qualitative economic growth” while “Latin America still needs to emphasise quantitative development”.

Toyoshi Satow, chancellor of JF Oberlin University in Tokyo and president of the International Association of University Presidents, said that even successful East Asian countries had to keep changing according to economic and social circumstances.

“Japan’s business landscape has changed – manufacturing business lost its vitality and the economy has weakened significantly since the 1990s. The country has been in a deflation spiral for nearly two decades, and Japanese businesses have lost competitiveness,” he said.

Lifetime employment is “an illusion” for many young people and there is an ever increasing number of temporary jobs.

“In these circumstances the Japanese government has spotlighted that Japanese universities’ central function is to create innovation which will be a driving force of society.” This includes a stronger emphasis on science and engineering, and stronger academia-industry cooperation.

Role model

East Asian countries’ public investment in education and science and technology can be a good model, said Arturo Cherbowsi Lask, director general of Universia, a network of 1,100 Ibero-Latin American universities sponsored by the Santander banking group.

“With public investment in higher education, technology transfer and scientific research, we know economic development will happen. There are many good examples of this and South Korea is one,” he said.

“They had a concentrated state policy, they put their money where their mouth is, they also made associations with the private sector, and they had results.”

But whether this could be emulated in Latin America was another question. “It’s a complicated time in Latin America right now. It’s not the greatest moment for comparison,” Cherbowski said.

There was some optimism about higher education developments in Brazil in recent years, but the country has in recent months been beset by political problems. The same is true of Mexico.

“Three years ago we would be talking about the ‘Mexican Moment’, and the commitment of the government to increase state funding for education and science and technology development. But right now is perhaps not the most appropriate time,” Cherbowski said.

“On a positive note there is awareness in the whole Latin American region about the importance of education and the importance of investment in science and technology development and transfer, and that is heartening news. Some 10 to 15 years ago that was not there.”

“The political and economic circumstances will come and go, and they will change, but now the consciousness is there. There is an awareness that investment in higher education and innovation has to be made.”