Governments must take responsibility for HE – Rectors

Rectors of the 37 universities that make up the Network of Macro-universities of Latin America and the Caribbean have expressed concern that some governments and parliaments are trying to avoid fulfilling their obligation towards public universities.

“Worse still is that they can delegate this responsibility to the private sector at a high cost and with no quality assurances,” reads the Santiago de Chile Declaration, issued on 21 April by the network’s eighth General Assembly of Rectors held at the Universidad de Chile.

What the 37 universities that make up the Network of Macro-universities have in common is that they cater for more than 40,000 students, offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in many disciplines, carry out research, get public funding and see themselves as guardians of the historical and cultural patrimony of their nations.

“Education… is a state responsibility because the higher the levels of education, the higher are incomes and social development, better are the chances of understanding and tolerating differences and diversities and of building a sustainable world,” said Enrique Graue, rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM in his presentation to the assembly.

“Financing public universities is a state obligation as long as there are social inequalities in Latin America. While huge income gaps remain, education must be free,” Graue added.

The Santiago de Chile Declaration stresses the importance of autonomy, a concept defined by Graue as “the resolve that universities must be free, plural and diverse; the unambiguous will to determine their academic path without external influences…”

In Mexico, he said, university autonomy was given constitutional status in 2016, as was gratuity for public education.

Higher education, the rectors declared, must point towards innovation as a way of “opening and connecting our institutions through the use of information and communication technologies [ICTs]”.

Most macro-universities are already introducing new ICTs. In his contribution, Alberto Barbieri, rector of the Universidad de Buenos Aires or UBA in Argentina, told his colleagues that his university is imparting 28 subjects virtually, for which more than 60,000 students are registered. Also, UBA has trained more than 7,000 teachers in information technologies.

With regard to migration from Latin American and Caribbean countries, rectors agreed that their institutions must work together to elaborate public policies that “allow a fruitful, secure and humane transit for each of the region’s citizens”.

The Santiago de Chile Declaration also states that it is crucial to obtain government support to significantly enhance student exchange programmes.

Marco Antonio Zago, rector of the Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil, the newly-elected president of the network, referred in the closing session of the assembly to the network’s agreement to strengthen their exchange programme.

Generating a programme similar to the European Erasmus+ programme for exchange of students and staff is one of the objectives agreed. To achieve this aim, “the participation of universities is not enough, governments must also be involved”, Zago emphasised.

He was happy, he said, that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean would be offering them its full support for this endeavour.

Some universities are already emphasising collaboration with other bodies. Rector Barbieri told the assembly that the UBA has more than 800 agreements with other universities and organisations and is creating new networks such as the Latin American Knowledge Network with UNAM, Universidade de São Paulo and the Universidad Complutense de Barcelona in Spain.

Concern over xenophobic policies

In a separate declaration, the Network of Macro-universities of Latin America and the Caribbean expressed their worry about the consequences of the “xenophobic and discriminatory policies announced by the government of the United States that conspire against the human rights and dignities of people”.

In this declaration, they also expressed their solidarity and support for the more than 800,000 Latin American and Caribbean nationals studying in the US “that eventually could be harmed by the anti-immigration measures…”

The next meeting of the network will be in April 2018 in Mexico City.