Why Latin America needs to embrace a mixed tertiary model

A bird’s-eye view of how education systems have evolved worldwide shows that the extremes are represented by Latin America and East Asia.

International large-scale surveys like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that, while countries such as Singapore and South Korea have improved the quality of their education systems very effectively over the last decades and have moved from being the underdogs to becoming top performers, Latin America has failed to do so despite starting from a better position.

The reason for the difference between the ‘East Asian miracle’ and Latin America having gone from being a relatively rich region 50 years ago to a relatively poor one today is down to the way the two regions have been able to develop human capital.

No-one left behind

Latin America is a region where inequality is high, a context in which societies tend to value education as an engine of social mobility. Governments have responded to the growing aspirations of an expanding middle class by undertaking huge efforts to expand access to higher levels of educational attainment, including university.

A university degree is widely regarded as the one and only passport to a good job and a sort of protective lifetime shield against professional failure.

This belief is so ingrained that massive student protests sweep Latin America periodically, repeatedly demanding free and non-selective university education to ensure access for all.

Under this prism university is seen as the great equalising force that compensates for the inequalities in educational opportunities at lower levels of educational attainment. According to this viewpoint, there should be no economic or academic barriers to higher education – no-one should be left behind.

The problem is that such policies end up leaving everyone behind.

The argument against economic barriers is based on the seemingly obvious premise that it ensures that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds can afford to attend university. However, in societies where most university students still come from the top percentiles of the income distribution, this leads to inverse redistribution patterns, whereby low-income families end up paying through taxes for wealthier students to attend university for free.

The economic barriers for underprivileged students can be overcome through other means, such as targeted scholarships, thus avoiding these unintended consequences.

No barriers to access

The pursuit of equity has also led to the demand that there should be no academic barriers when it comes to attending university. The reasoning behind this is that not all students have enjoyed the same opportunities at school since underprivileged students are more likely to attend poor quality public schools.

Thus, although differences in academic performance are acknowledged, these are not attributed to ability or effort, but rather to inequality of opportunity. It is therefore seen as fair that universities should compensate for these gaps by facilitating access for all.

Unfortunately, this is a delusion. Higher levels of educational attainment in Latin America have not had the expected returns in terms of improved knowledge and skills. In my view, there are two main issues.

First, since the quality of education is low, increased access to university is achieved partly by decreasing standards. This is illustrated by the fact that the level of basic skills (numeracy and literacy) acquired by tertiary graduates in countries such as Peru, Mexico and Ecuador is lower than that of people who have not attained upper secondary education in most OECD-participating countries, according to the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC).

Such poor outcomes lead to intense levels of frustration, even among students who achieve high levels of educational attainment, since they have low levels of knowledge and skills and, therefore, do not reap the expected benefits.

At the aggregate level, the magnitude of the differences in quality across education systems worldwide is such that the metrics generally used to measure human capital, such as years of schooling or number of university graduates, are meaningless.

To give just one example, according to PISA – which measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges – the difference in quality between the top performer in 2015 (Singapore) and the lowest performer (Dominican Republic) is equivalent to seven years of schooling, which is more or less the duration of compulsory education in many Latin American countries.

To become useful, such metrics need to concentrate on learning outcomes (ie, levels of knowledge and skills) rather than inputs (ie, the number of students who access university).

Embracing VET reforms

The second issue is that university is mistakenly seen as the only pathway leading to high quality jobs, so the vocational education and training (VET) sector is poorly developed, suffers low prestige and few students enrol in it.

As secretary of state for education, vocational education and training and universities in Spain, I had to face a similar situation since in my country VET was also regarded as a way for low-performing students to access low-skilled manual jobs.

However, this experience made it clear to me that having a more diversified system, whereby modernised VET systems co-exist with universities at the tertiary level, delivers excellent outcomes.

We designed and implemented an education reform in which VET was one of the main pillars: it was modernised so that it attracted students of all levels of performance who aspired to obtain medium- and high-quality jobs, strengthened the acquisition of foundation skills, built bridges with universities and put an emphasis on VET combined with a heavy component of ‘on-the-job training’.

Ten years later, the number of students choosing VET has doubled and their levels of employability are often higher than those of university graduates. I regard this as the main success of the reform.

I then joined the OECD where my role was to advise governments on education and skills policies. I learned how other countries in Europe, such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, have traditionally developed strong and successful apprenticeship systems, in which employers have a big say in what students learn and provide the necessary training.

These have proven successful in leading to high levels of employability, even during the financial crisis, because on-the-job training allows students to acquire the skills which are needed by employers, while at the same time allowing employers to access the best candidates.

This alignment with the labour market has become particularly important in rapidly changing economies which demand higher and different sets of skills due to digitalisation, globalisation and, more recently, artificial intelligence. These systems have co-existed with equally successful universities which prepare students for different types of jobs.

I have worked with many countries where outdated VET systems have undergone a huge transformation into modern and flexible ones, which attract larger shares of students who find it easier to access jobs. Latin America should learn from these countries and embrace more practical types of learning which allow graduating students to join the labour market and lead the transformation that their economies require.

Montse Gomendio is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council and visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom. Formerly, she served as Spain’s secretary of state for education, as the OECD’s deputy director for education and as head of its Centre for Skills. She is co-author of Dire Straits–Education Reforms: Ideology, vested interests and evidence (2023).