LatAm universities ‘ready to compete’ for foreign students

Latin American and Caribbean universities should stop promoting themselves as educational tourist destinations and instead highlight the quality of the education they offer, the 2022 NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference was told on 5 May by leading higher education administrators from across Latin America.

Dr Rodrigo Cintra, chief international officer of Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing (ESPM or Higher School of Advertising and Marketing) in São Paulo, Brazil, put the American and European universities that have dominated international education on notice, saying: “We are here to play with you.”

The catalyst for this newfound confidence is the educational upheaval caused by the COVID pandemic. Each of the three panellists and the session’s keynote speaker stressed that the pandemic did more than simply accelerate their institutions’ exploitation of online education.

“We invested lots of money in our technological capacities,” said Dr Brigitte Baptiste, rector of the Universidad Ean in Bogotá, Colombia. “But also, in creating new languages or making virtual interaction less boring, less heavy, much more attractive” for learners.

Speaking of the other universities in the region, she continued: “We leapfrogged ahead in virtual education and in creating resources for people to engage in education through networks via the virtual world.”

Inter-university collaboration

The shift to online learning also meant that universities could more easily cooperate with each other, said Rosario Diaz Dominguez, director of international relations at Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile. “I think that COIL [collaborative, online international learning] is a key tool. It is a key opportunity and methodology for Latin American universities to meet and to start collaborating.”

Though they were speaking in English to a conference hosted by an American organisation holding its in-person sessions in Denver, Colorado, both she and Cintra stressed that English was no longer the lingua franca of the region’s higher education.

“We don’t have large barriers in languages,” said Dominguez. “We have Spanish and Portuguese. We have, of course, many different accents. But, that’s fantastic.”

For his part, Cintra noted that the region’s languages differentiate it from the rest of the world (save, of course, from Spain, Portugal and the Philippines) and this forms a social reality unique to the region.

Among the other unique aspects of the region that he believes should be highlighted to those interested in international higher education and research, he listed tropical diseases endemic to the region, the way companies are managed, as well as the region’s cultural life and institutions.

Additionally, Cintra drew attention to ESPM’s joint programmes with Japan; Brazil has 1.5 million citizens of Japanese descent, the largest Japanese diaspora in the world.

Dr Alejandra Barahona, director of the Centre for International Programs and Sustainability Studies at Universidad Veritas in San José, Costa Rica, also noted how the move to online learning had facilitated cooperation not just among universities in the region but had also closed the “perceived gap” between universities and industry.

The experience of designing engaging online courses can be used to integrate industry and other outside experts into (previously siloed) courses, she said.

Further, universities in Latin America and the Caribbean should seek cross-border opportunities. “We can seek research funding between Latin American countries. And dual projects and joint institution grant proposals.”

As did the other participants, Barahona emphasised the link between universities with an international mindset and teaching and modelling ecological sustainability, and teaching about social justice.

The faculty at Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica, she said, have been developing capacity in such areas as trauma informed pedagogy, racial literacy and critical thinking.

Rising to the challenge of sustainability

The central part of Baptiste’s keynote address focused on the role the region’s universities have in combating both climate change and pollution. She began by calling for each faculty to incorporate sustainability into its curricula.

“If you’re an engineer, if you’re a sociologist, or if you are a practitioner in another discipline, I think that our universities should link our curriculum with a discussion about sustainability.”

Baptiste challenged her audience to re-imagine tourism, agricultural, food and entrepreneurship programmes from a sustainable point of view.

To avoid creating new “bubbles” in departments or universities, Baptiste looked towards international cooperation between and among universities, departments and students.

Even as national universities help foster economic development, she said, they must talk to each other to further professors’ and students’ understanding of the environmental crisis – so that national economic development is sustainable.

By way of an example that will engage students across Latin America and the Caribbean, Baptiste pointed to the region-wide project of reforestation.

The region’s universities have a role in restoring the biodiversity we lost during the couple of centuries of deforestation. They can help “rebuild our forests”, she said.

Knowing that one of the arguments used by those who reject the science showing that the Earth’s climate is warming is the cost of mitigation measures, Baptiste emphasised that the newest environmentally sensitive building on her campus was not more expensive than a traditional building.

The building’s WonderFrame façade (perforated panels positioned outside the windows) shades the building while maximising the use of natural light and air currents. These panels reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 74 tons of carbon dioxide per year. The building has won numerous awards.

In partnership with a large non-governmental organisation in Colombia, Baptiste’s university introduced an outdoor programme during the COVID pandemic in which students and professors collaborated to plant more than 3,000 trees.

The programme involved students from health, languages and psychology. “None of them [the students] were really thinking about technology. But they were very happy to have participated in carbon mitigation,” she said.

Government support

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the session was the absence of calls for government action to facilitate either online activities or cross-border cooperation.

The one exception was Cintra. Speaking as a Latin American and not a Brazilian, he said: “We must start putting more pressure on governments to change the way they promote Latin America and the Caribbean as a high-quality place to go. Not only are they exotic places to have an [enjoyable] experience of living; it must be [seen] as an educational experience full of quality.”