Future of the Latin American and Caribbean university

UNESCO’s 2015 Incheon Declaration and its Education 2030 Framework for Action lay out the main goals for the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, in the education sector. It is the first time higher education institutions have been included in this kind of declaration and, since then, there has been a concerted attempt to look strategically at how we can mobilise universities across the world.

In Latin America and the Caribbean this mobilisation involves new inter-related, collective efforts and global/local networks of universities and higher education institutions and should embrace inclusive and equitable quality higher education, socially responsible research and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Nevertheless, the regional context presents complex challenges for those seeking to achieve these goals due to the large economic and social gaps in these countries and growing inequality over the last decades.

The new global/local role of universities and higher education institutions has become a particular issue for the United Nations SDGs due to the links with and impact of higher education institutions on learning and curriculum development in the general education system, and because socially responsible research, the production of new knowledge and social innovation are linked to the challenges of the current period.

These challenges include changing labour markets, technological advances, urbanisation, migration, political instability, environmental degradation, natural hazards and disasters, competition for natural resources, demographic changes, increasing global unemployment, persistent poverty, widening insecurity and expanding threats to peace and safety – challenges that are particularly difficult in underdeveloped and emerging economies and societies.

Nevertheless, in our diversified but disjointed higher education system, the SDGs may not be achieved if in the next five years universities and higher education institutions do not make radical changes in their own organisation, visions and curriculum platforms; promote socially responsible research and socially beneficial innovations; reinforce their own autonomy and behave more responsibly so they can influence other actors and stakeholders to make the same responsible efforts and share common agendas in order to arrive at the 2030 scenario.

For instance, in the context of the Latin American and the Caribbean region, the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report notes that if there is no real change in the next five years, it is unlikely that many countries will be able to achieve even the general goals by 2030. It could take until 2054 to do so, with some countries taking up to 58 years to achieve them and others not getting anywhere near them until the end of the century.

It says that some governments and educational authorities can’t understand that the education SDGs are linked to other sustainable development goals and agendas.

Growing social inequality

Over the past decade, social inequality has grown and access to tertiary education is worse than it was at the end of the last century: the richest quintile of the 18- to 24-year-old age group are around 50-60% more likely to go on to higher education and to complete their degree than the poorest one. The figures are worse for ethnic minorities, people in rural areas, women and for those from the poorest urban areas.

Also, the current trend to commodify higher education – treating students as consumers – is more widespread in this region than in other parts of the world and has a negative impact on widening participation.

In general terms the Global Education Monitoring Report finds that the goal of getting 72.7% of the 18- to 24-year-old age group completing secondary education won’t be possible until 2080 and then only if expansion continues at a regular rate.

With 22 million students in higher education, catered for by 4,200 universities and higher education institutions (48.2% of them in the private sector), only 21.7% of 18- to 24-year-olds are currently accessing places in the region.

It is only in a handful of countries – Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia – that the largest inequalities have been transformed, but in the majority of countries the higher education system has remained almost static over the past four decades, with the same management structure, the same narrow curriculum, high levels of graduate unemployment and poor research output and performance in the production of knowledge and scientific discoveries.

Movement towards greater social responsibility and critical thinking is mainly coming from student movements and sometimes from academics and teachers.

Goals for the future

Nevertheless, next year, we, as researchers, teachers and students, rectors and people involved in higher education affairs, will have an extraordinary opportunity to discuss strategies and goals for the future. This opportunity will take place at the Regional Conference on Higher Education organised by UNESCO and its International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It is a massive conference, the biggest in the world, and in one week it will bring together hundreds of participants, from governmental offices, universities and institutes, academics, students, scientific networks and associations.

We have been organising a very interesting agenda that covers topics from widening access to more young people and adults, to the construction of a Latin American knowledge society. Given the close relationship between the curriculum, new paradigms of learning and research, the interaction of people from different cultural backgrounds and universities’ social responsibility to the wider public are a vital part of any agenda for the future.

Axel Didriksson Takayanagui is a writer, a professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, and a member of the board of the UNESCO Chair on Regional Integration and University at UNAM. He is also president of the Global University Network for Innovation, or GUNi, for Latin America and the Caribbean.