The need to incentivise quality assurance in Latin America

Quality assurance of higher education institutions is complex and affected by multiple variables, making measurement difficult. We analysed the quality systems operated by three countries in Latin America. Two of them have recently reformed their legal frameworks – Mexico and Chile – and Costa Rica is in the process of doing so.

These reforms have included the creation of comprehensive quality assurance systems, granting greater responsibility to education institutions and thus demanding greater commitment from them.

Our analysis compared the systems based on four criteria:

• The objectives and nature (formative or summative) of assessment.

• The roles played by higher education institutions, agencies and governments.

• The consequences and impacts of decisions and-or recommendations.

• The cost of operating quality assurance systems versus the expected benefits.

Costa Rica

The National Accreditation System for Higher Education (SINAES) is the entity responsible for publicly attesting to the quality of Costa Rica’s higher education institutions and that of their degree courses and programmes, based on their voluntary submission to an external assessment process and demonstration of compliance with established quality criteria.

Two laws govern the system: No 8256 of May 2002 and No 8798 of April 2010.

This is an enormous task that raises questions in terms of both teaching methods and cost. The system is also strongly focused on the accreditation body itself, providing insufficient incentives for higher education institutions to improve on the basis of their own initiatives.

SINAES only accredits 12.9% of the 1,673 degree courses taught in the country. This is a very small percentage, meaning that its impact in terms of quality is minimal.


Institutional accreditation is mandatory in Chile and consists of the assessment and verification of quality standards and compliance with specific criteria relating to inputs, processes and results. It also requires the existence of internal quality assurance mechanisms and assesses their alignment with institutional missions and objectives.

One weakness of the regulatory framework is that the accreditation body provides insufficient incentives for improvements to quality. Higher education institutions are under pressure to achieve a ‘good rating’ and therefore do not openly acknowledge their weaknesses. Furthermore, the balance between the cost of accreditation of institutions and degree programmes and the benefits expected by society is unclear.


There are 30 accreditation organisations currently approved by Mexico’s Higher Education Accreditation Council to carry out the accreditation of academic programmes offered by higher education institutions. The Federation of Mexican Institutions of Higher Education also conducts institutional accreditation processes for its associates.

There have, however, been recent legal changes that touch on quality assurance.

The General Law on Higher Education of April 2021 defines the assessment of higher education as a comprehensive, systematic and participatory process aimed at continuous improvement and based on the diagnostic evaluation and assessment of programmes and institutional management, and on accreditation.

It also stipulates that higher education institutions must conduct systematic and comprehensive internal and external planning and assessment of processes and the results of their substantive and management functions, including the operating conditions of their academic programmes, in order to support the continuous improvement of education and optimal student learning outcomes.

The law states that, when it comes to the accreditation of public universities, institutions must operate processes that are compatible with their constitutional and legal autonomy.

Challenges to progress on quality assurance

In each country there are challenges to progress. In Costa Rica, based on results from recent decades, there is a clear need to design and implement a mandatory comprehensive quality assurance system that is completely autonomous and focused on processes and results and that ensures a close link with IES licensing (authorisation) processes.

The Costa Rican accreditation system, which focuses exclusively on degree courses, shows discouraging figures in terms of ensuring quality of learning for all students, with increased inequalities among young people being generated given that public and private higher education institutions follow different accreditation pathways.

In Chile, there is a mismatch between hard, measurable and demonstrable evidence of progress in terms of outcomes, impact and the acquisition by young professionals of knowledge and essential skills and values, and the accreditation period for each institution.

The Chilean quality assurance system as it stands today raises serious questions as to its true effectiveness in terms of improving student learning outcomes, amid suggestions that it has become little more than a compulsory ritual.

In the case of Mexico, a brief analysis reveals that the current accreditation system is based on a standardised and fragmented model whose components are only loosely integrated.

Assessment is considered an end rather than a means to an end, and the system focuses primarily on inputs, pays very little regard to results and is asymmetric in its selection and training of peer reviewers.

However, recent legislation poses a dilemma as to the modalities that will be defined for the accreditation of public universities, given the requirement for compatibility with institutions’ constitutional autonomy, the complex institutional fabric of each establishment and the additional costs that will be incurred as a result.

Institutional differences

The current process in all three cases analysed requires higher education institutions to prepare self-assessment reports, including SWOT analyses. The self-assessment reports are evaluated by peer-review panels that then make recommendations.

However, the impact of this process depends heavily on each institution, which is free to ignore the final report, and there is no follow-up regarding the recommendations provided by the experts, either internally or externally.

Nevertheless, the systems recently implemented in Mexico and Chile show promising signs when it comes to a focus on continuous improvement.

These result from a broad and participatory debate among higher education institution communities, government and legislators, allowing institutions to take charge of the quality of all their services while ensuring that they take their responsibilities seriously.

In Costa Rica, while fundamental advances on quality assurance have been made, such as more robust standards for the accreditation of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and the development of SINAES, a strategic country vision on higher education and quality assurance is required.

Each of these countries corresponds to the quality assurance reality in the three regions of Latin America – South America, Central America and North America.

Although many countries in the region have made significant efforts in this area, there is still a long way to go when it comes to improving the quality of student education and achieving international standards in research and innovation that are comparable with those of developed countries.

Quality assurance systems need to acknowledge that higher education institutions have different and varied missions. Accreditation bodies should therefore not seek to enforce their own criteria exclusively, but to recognise that each institution has its own objectives based on its mission.

Carlos Olivares is a higher education consultant based in Chile. E-mail: