The transformative benefits of internationalisation

Internationalisation has transformative potential not just in terms of education and knowledge production, but also for wider society. In Latin America, the general theme of internationalisation of higher education has begun to appear on the agenda of academics, university administrators and higher education policymakers.

We do not yet, however, have a systematic debate on the subject and, even less, clear guidelines and strategies which might guide institutional behaviour. In addition, there is only an embryonic debate on the inherent transformative effect of international initiatives.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This is a reflection of the low number of international students in Latin American institutions. Based on UNESCO statistics from 2014, there were more than four million international students all over the world in that year, a number which is rising quickly. However, only 0.02% of those students (90,259) were at Latin American institutions.

Even when we consider the number of Latin American students who were studying abroad, it is surprisingly low at just 207,686. Other developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa had 264,774 students studying abroad and South and West Asia had 359,358 study abroad students.

Private education organisations

It has become more evident that Latin America is in an odd place with regards to internationalisation. As an institutional strategy internationalisation has drawn growing attention within the region’s universities in recent years, but this is still in the very early stages.

However, at the same time, the region has seen an onslaught from foreign educational groups, mainly in the distance education arena. In recent years, for-profit higher education institutions and international groups of foreign investors have begun, directly or in partnership with groups from the region, to take control of private for-profit higher education institutions.

It is still unclear whether these groups are using models and pedagogical and managerial standards imported from abroad, but they are expanding quickly.

The Laureate International Universities, private institutions controlled by the American Baltimorean group Laureate Education, operate in 25 countries in the world both on campus and online. In Latin America, they are present in eight countries – Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Equador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru – and most of their revenue comes from that region.

Several institutions in the region have been bought by them, such as UniRitter and IBMR in Brazil. Brazil has the highest number of Laureate institutions in the region with 11, followed by Chile with six (including the Universidad de las Americas) and Peru with four (including the Universidad Privada del Norte).

Big educational groups like Laureate have noted that the demand for low-cost higher education far outstrips the supply in many countries in Latin America. They saw a profit opportunity in a region where higher education has traditionally been the property of the Catholic universities and state-run universities, which are free or have low tuition fees and offer limited places for students, most of them from the economic elite.

The higher education gross enrolment ratio in Latin American countries is increasing – in Brazil it is 45.5%, in Colombia 51.3% and in Peru 40.5% – but it is still lower than in developed countries like the United States (86.6%), Germany (65.5%), France (64.4%) and Japan (62.4%).

Distance learning

If Latin American universities seem to have proven to be resistant to change and modernisation in the last few decades, mainly in state-owned institutions, in parallel, online distance education has been growing significantly and, as a result, the region has one of the highest levels of distance education of students at tertiary level.

In countries like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, enrolments in distance higher education is around 15%-20% of all higher education students. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have approximately 2.6 million distance eucation students combined. That number is evidence of an undeniable reality: the important role that distance education has played in the massification of higher education in the region.

The relatively high rates of internet access in the region compared to other developing countries has facilitated this boom in online distance education. The number of internet users per 100 people in Latin America and the Caribbean is 53.9 on average, higher than other developing regions like East Asia and Pacific (excluding developed countries) where it is 45 and South Asia where it is 23.6.

In addition, those numbers suggest the great potential for internationalising higher education through distance learning.

A major barrier is, of course, language. English proficiency is still very low in the region, even among undergraduate and graduate students.

Current internationalisation initiatives

Although it is possible to see some internationalisation initiatives in the private sector and among distance education providers in the region (for instance, the Laureate group offers some exchange programmes), internationalisation initiatives are still concentrated in traditional institutions – usually the state-owned or Catholic universities.

To expand the debate is still a challenge in Latin America. As state-owned institutions are quite bureaucratic, and are the main players in the higher education systems in the region, discussion of internationalisation has been limited.

A wider debate which might encourage more initiatives should address the real and unpredictable consequences of internationalisation for the Latin American economy and society as a whole. On the positive side, there is true transformative potential.

This lies in preparing graduates for an increasingly international labour market, preparing academics to be able to work in international teams tackling issues of worldwide importance, educating future global leaders who can provide global insights on local issues, and, no less important, increasing diversity.

Bruno Morche is a higher education specialist and doctoral researcher in Brazil and holds an MA in comparative education from the UCL Institute of Education in the United Kingdom.