How global HE collaboration can benefit local communities

Latin America – and its leading universities – are at a turning point, one that could (and should) usher in a new era of international collaboration in ways that benefit local communities by identifying challenges and delivering solutions.

Higher education leaders have an obligation to serve a leadership role as drivers of economic and social progress in their regions and we are increasingly seeing universities in Mexico and across Latin America take this commitment seriously.

As Francisco Marmolejo, the World Bank’s lead tertiary education specialist, has stated, it is crucial that in moments of tension and intolerance, universities play a decisive and authoritative role on issues affecting society.

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In Northwestern Mexico, specifically in Baja California, we have seen these solutions come to life through economic development, new opportunities for international collaboration and expanded access to higher education.

Economic development

Universities are increasingly playing a central role as hubs for (and drivers of) economic development. This is slowly becoming a reality across Latin America, but it is certainly true in the Mexican border region of Baja California, where CETYS University continues to serve as a critical component of regional growth.

From 2010 to 2016, Baja California’s gross domestic product alone grew by more than 25%, to US$33.6 billion. As partners to local and multinational industry, universities like CETYS provide talent and intellectual capital that is foundational for such long-term growth.

At its core, this means creating nimble curricula that respond to current and future economic needs, while also providing a leadership role in technology development and transfer.

Consider that alumni from CETYS make up nearly 40% of industry leaders in Baja California. And industry clusters elsewhere in Mexico also exemplify this form of collaboration between industry, government and higher education, including Querétaro and El Bajío.

Real-world implications

In addition to immediate and near term economic development implications, universities also play a key role in responding to long-term challenges with real-world implications for society and individuals.

We see this with a number of United States-based institutions which have re-imagined their research funding models to prioritise initiatives aimed at addressing societal challenges.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, their Grand Challenges programme is focused on a multi-faceted approach to create a more environmentally sustainable Los Angeles, while also tackling depression in LA through a systematic public health lens.

Meanwhile, Indiana University – in the American Midwest – is focused on equipping the state to become more resilient in the face of climate change, while also confronting the perils of drug and opioid addiction.

In Baja California, our centres of excellence play a similar role in that they bring industry, government and academic leaders together to develop real-world solutions to regional problems. This includes from fast-tracked specialised graduate programmes developed in partnership with industry to research efforts related to autonomous vehicles or new ways to measure mental fatigue.

Of course, embedding problem-solving into university culture calls us to enlist external advisors and experts to provide counsel that can channel university initiatives, helping higher education leaders anticipate obstacles while focusing research and programmatic initiatives to address them.

This may include student-facing efforts aimed at cultivating specific skill sets and it may take the form of a more deliberate research enterprise.

The impact of cross-border collaboration

Such future-focused initiatives are particularly critical amid ongoing political tensions regarding the US-Mexico border. By prioritising opportunities for international collaboration, we can reinforce the sense of unity and partnership that has historically been a hallmark of higher education.

We see this through the growing adoption of unifying standards and quality accreditation. More than 40 foreign institutions have US institutional accreditation, 10 of those located in Latin America.

Programmatically, new alliances can create ‘win-win’ scenarios that help foster innovation and development. Through the ‘100,000 Strong in the Americas’ grant, the University of Texas at El Paso and CETYS University had students apply their engineering expertise to environmental challenges in Guadalupe Valley, a world-renowned wine region in Baja California.

At their core, higher education institutions are uniquely suited to be hubs for engagement with global experts in academe and in industry. But fulfilling this mission demands that we embed its focus into our planning efforts.

Access to education

Finally, as incubators of regional development, universities must understand that they exist to empower individuals in their communities by creating a more equitable path to higher education. The very individuals that universities support are the changemakers of our respective regions.

For CETYS, that means that more than 80% of our students receive scholarships, with nearly 65% of students coming from low- or moderate-income families. And if we are to continue fulfilling our mission, such a commitment to access must not only remain a pillar of our strategic focus, but it must evolve – aided by insights and counsel from our international partners.

We look to initiatives like the Global Attainment and Inclusion Network – backed by the American Council on Education and Lumina Foundation – to help equip institutions like ours to not only consider access but also attainment in ways that are increasingly more equitable and inclusive.

We know that an emphasis on equity has clear implications for how we cultivate inclusion and diversity and fulfil one of the most universal of all educational goals: fostering civically engaged communities that are also economically prosperous.

Fernando León García is president of CETYS University, Mexico.