A plan to promote student mobility in Latin America

I have read with considerable interest the excellent recent article by Francesc Pedró in UWN. It highlights important and very welcome international developments across Latin America for increased mobility of students and academics continent-wide.

Latin American universities regrettably do not generally fare particularly well in international rankings, aka league tables. The most used rankings are the QS and THE league tables. The highest ranked Latin American university in the QS World University Rankings sits at number 85 whilst in the THEWorld University Rankings none crack the top 200.

Of course, these rankings are somewhat controversial and, as shown with the Latin American top-ranked university in QS and THE, there are glaring discrepancies between them due to their methodologies etc.

Nonetheless, people look at these rankings for a variety of reasons. Hence, we should pay some attention to them as well.

Most rankings pay particular attention to research, an area that is often and historically weak in Latin American institutions, resulting in lower rankings. Strengthening Latin American universities, especially in research, will benefit the continent’s universities and ultimately the people of the continent to lead better lives.

As an academic formerly in senior leadership roles at a Latin American (research) university, I wish to add some further and, hopefully, helpful suggestions to Pedró’s excellent piece in the spirit of well-meaning advice from a retired academic who has lived and worked in Latin America and elsewhere:

• To make Latin American universities more attractive to international, and especially fellow Latin American students and academics, exchange programmes should also include specifically research universities in developed countries such as the US, Europe, Australia, Singapore etc., aimed at strengthening research locally. This may ultimately also improve the worldwide rankings.

• I cannot overemphasise the importance of fluency in written and spoken English. It should be encouraged amongst Latin American students and postdocs as a priority. This emphasis makes academic mobility outside of Latin America much easier, allows for higher impact publications, platform (or at least abstract) presentations at international meetings etc. Teaching some classes in English, having written assignments in English and practising English presentations in class might be most useful in this context.

• Specific programmes should spend time preparing students and scholars who spend time in another country, whether in Latin America or elsewhere, for their move, their lives abroad and their return to their home country at their home institution. This may also include support in bureaucratic matters such as visa, health insurance, jobs for spouses, school for children etc.

• Mobile Latin American students should, of course, take their newly gained knowledge and experience when feasible back to their home countries and continent so that it can benefit local people. It is critical that they are motivated to return to their home countries to advance them.

• Specific programmes should aid the reintegration of returning students and scholars into their home institutions and countries. Support will be needed from the home institutions as well as national governments, specifically the education and science/technology ministries.

Of course, some Latin American students and scholars may stay in the developed countries they travel to for a variety of reasons. These individuals will enrich those societies with their contributions, including their cultures.

Revitalised Latin American universities, especially in research, strengthened by international exchanges, will advance the lives of all the people of the continent through training and research enriched by international experiences.

Lastly, these processes must be driven by Latin American students and academics themselves and supported by academic leadership at the home university and the governments of home countries, specifically the education and science or technology ministries.

Students and academics from disadvantaged populations, for instance students from indigenous backgrounds, descendants of (African) slaves etc, should especially be encouraged to participate in international exchange programmes. These individuals will then not only help their countries, but their inclusion will help disadvantaged populations in a culturally sensitive way.

I am obviously not of Latin American origin, but I have lived in Latin America twice in my life. In fact, I have come to love the countries I have lived in and visited over the years and have worked to better the lives of the wonderful people living in Latin America.

It is my distinct honour to add my point of view and suggestions in a respectful way. I have aimed to make helpful suggestions which I hope are useful for further improvements of Latin American universities. Academia should benefit the lives of all people living in Latin America and I hope I can contribute a little to this worthy goal.

Juergen Reichardt is Adjunct Professor of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University, Australia.