Universities need to embrace a more global outlook

Latin American universities have dropped several places in the rankings that have been released in the last few weeks. In the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Brazil, for example, has only 21 universities on the list against 27 last year; two of Colombia's five universities dropped down and the same was the case for Chile and Mexico.

According to Phil Baty, editorial director of Times Higher Education or THE, although we can see some improvements in Latin America, the general picture coming from the region’s higher education institutions is one of decline.

Even though we may be critical of higher education rankings, it is important to ask why Latin America seems to be taking steps backwards in comparison with other regions.

Quantity vs quality

Emerging countries, and particularly middle-income countries such as those in Latin America, are in a peculiar situation. On the one hand, they are dealing with a newly established higher education system that has had to cope with an explosion in demand in recent decades and, on the other hand, they have to be competitive in the global arena and deal with many challenges of competing with developed systems.

In the past decades, higher education in Latin America has witnessed a boom in the number of universities and campuses. As a result, the gross enrolment ratio at the tertiary level has increased significantly. In 1999 it was 22.36%, in 2005 30.73% and in 2015 it reached 46.51%.

The number of students enrolled in a given level of education, regardless of age, is expressed as a percentage of the official school-age population corresponding to the same level of education.

According to UNESCO data, between 1999 and 2015, this increase represents approximately 15 million more students in Latin American universities and colleges. Most of this increase occurred in private institutions and now less than half of Latin America's students are at public institutions.

In many countries in the region the proportion of enrolments in private institutions exceeds 40%, such as in Ecuador (40%), Colombia (49%), Costa Rica (51%), Peru (54%), Paraguay (69%), Brazil (74%) and Chile (84%).

The private sector has played a crucial role in this huge expansion but, in several cases, quality has lagged behind. In the region, combining quantity and quality has been the hardest challenge.

Private vs public

This is a big factor in the deep division between public and private higher education in the region. In most cases, public universities head the rankings of Latin American countries.

In recent decades, while traditional state-owned universities are where high-quality research is concentrated and are, in general, resistant to changes and modernisation, modern and low-cost new private institutions have been used as a conduit for massification. That is why online higher education grew quickly in Latin America and why the region has one of the most developed online systems in the world.

On the one hand, the maintenance of the elitist status of public universities has created a need for a huge and modern private sector and, on the other hand, the private sector has taken the lead in absorbing the high demand for higher education in the region.

Due to the massification via for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, many families have gone into debt to finance their children’s studies and the return on higher education degrees has become less clear.

State-owned universities in Latin America are highly dependent on government funds. Over the years, budget limitations as well as heavy bureaucracy have prevented major moves towards research and teaching modernisation. Furthermore, the gap between the research developed in good universities and the economy has widened, making it more difficult to find a perfect synergy between universities and key sectors in the Latin America economy.

Reducing the bureaucracy at state-owned institutions should be one of the main goals if higher education systems’ performance in the region is to improve.

In the private sector, some progress can be seen. After a long period of massification, a slow-down in the expansion can be observed. Quality has become a relevant topic in private institutions and some good teaching and research outputs have been achieved.

Gradually private universities have shown up in global rankings in high positions, especially the Catholic universities. I discussed this topic here .

In the THE World University Rankings 2018, published earlier this month, several private institutions from different countries appear, such as Diego Portales University (501-600) and Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (501-600) in Chile; Pontifical Javeriana University in Colombia (501-600); Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (601-700); Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (601-700) and Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil (801-1000).

In every new ranking it is possible to see Latin American private universities in increasingly higher positions. The THE 2017 rankings had seven private institutions in the Latin American top 20; in the 2018 version this number increased to nine.

After the boom of recent decades, it is undeniable that private institutions have an important role to play in the higher education systems of the region. In this sense, rigorous evaluation and oversight of private institutions will be crucial in the near future in order to significantly improve the performance of Latin American higher education.

Overcoming isolation

Latin America has enormous potential to be competitive in the global higher education arena. Yet year after year in the rankings we see the stagnation of Latin American universities as they are overtaken by Asian institutions.

The discussion on the path Latin American universities should take should be wider. In a world where those in politics and economics are looking to the developing regions of the East, what should the role of Latin America be? How can the region contribute effectively to this new international dynamic?

Higher education in the region should embrace a more international outlook to improve Latin America’s performance so that it can compete on a global stage. Internationalisation should be one of the main flags that Latin American universities fly. It should work as a catalyst for new and innovative initiatives in higher education.

This would not only benefit higher education systems, but also the entire society. Strengthening global links could be a way to overcome Latin American universities’ isolation and foster new ideas in teaching and research.

Bruno Morche is a higher education specialist, Edtech consultant and doctoral researcher in Brazil. He holds an MA in comparative education from the UCL Institute of Education in the United Kingdom and his international and professional background – giving lectures, working as a consultant and researcher – encompasses many countries such as Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, Chile and the United States. Email: