Why Latin America hasn’t got world-class universities

Re: “Why Latin America needs world-class universities”, by Philip G Altbach and Jamil Salmi, published in University World News on 6 March.

The authors write: “Latin America represents 8.5% of the world population and produces 8.7% of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 1.6% of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking and less than 1.5% of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking”.

Unfortunately, these numbers are correct. Still, to blame the Córdoba movement of 1918 for the present situation is to be too lenient towards the people that governed these universities during these 103 intermediate years. All of them still have their portraits hanging in the universities’ halls.

The 1918 University Reform or Córdoba University Reform was a youth movement wishing to democratise Argentinian universities, giving them a more scientific character without the control of the Catholic Church. It asked for reforms in the university statutes: university autonomy, participation of students in the management, the study of national problems, periodic verification of the quality of the teachers.

Violent confrontations between the reformists and Catholics took place. These disorders were similar to the student movements in the United States and France around the year 1968.The ideas of the 1918 reform mixed with anti-imperialistic ideas extended throughout Latin America.

Despite good intentions, the results were not those expected.

Democratic, egalitarian and sustainable ideas, student and union activism and frequent public demonstrations are common within the universities, without mayor intellectual contact with the rest of society or viable proposals for the political and economic needs of the country.

The noble ideals of 1918 were mostly forgotten, and the new best ideas about university organisation applied in the US and Europe (Helmholtz research universities, Clark Kerr academic communities, John Aubrey Douglass New Flagship Universities) were ignored or misinterpreted.

The concepts and recommendations of the authors are correct, particularly when they write: “The key missing element is the absence of a vision of excellence to challenge the status quo and transform the university.” We will do it.

A book with helpful data for the Brazilian case is GJ Creus, Educação Para Todos, Contrarium, 2021.

Guillermo J Creus is senior researcher in research, innovation and development for the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and a former professor of the National University of Rosario, Rosario, Argentina; the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil; and the Federal University for Latin American Integration (UNILA), Brazil.

Read with interest – Juergen Reichardt

I have read with interest the piece on “Why Latin America needs world-class universities” by Altbach and Salmi, which focused largely on the Córdoba model.

Latin America and its people deserve world-class universities to power their development and growth through research-informed education of its people and research in the region. Sadly, and as eloquently outlined by Altbach and Salmi, there are too many impediments to achieve the dream of such institutions in most Latin American countries.

My own experience as vice-chancellor, research and innovation, at Yachay Tech University in Ecuador, which was conceived as a small research-intensive public university, is also instructive as it used a rather different model: a much smaller campus-based institution in the countryside with on-site accommodation for most students and international faculty, most of the latter teaching in English, planned research labs etc.

Regrettably this courageous attempt has also failed due to pernicious envy from the leadership of other Ecuadorian universities which are teaching-focused, political interference and draconian funding cuts (in part due to the economic situation of the country).

It may be worthwhile considering a third model: establishing an international Latin American university which is to be research-focused and world-class. This could be done under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) or the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO); if one were to start with a healthcare-focused institution with strength in biomedical research, certainly an appealing proposition in the current pandemic context.

I call on interested parties, including relevant international organisations and foundations, to consider such an effort while setting nationalism and petty interests aside for the betterment of Latin America and its people.

The current pandemic has been a significant health and economic issue in Latin America and such a new world-class institution may be not only a beacon of hope but also an engine for Latin America and its people as well as a model for other emerging regions of the world such as Africa and Southeast Asia.

Juergen Reichardt, PhD, is adjunct professor, Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, Division of Tropical Health and Medicine, James Cook University, Australia, and former vice-chancellor, research and innovation, at Yachay Tech University in Ecuador.