Cultural inclusivity: A path to quality and sustainability

Latin American universities, like their counterparts around the world, are grappling with the demands of the 21st century. Universities in the region face a unique challenge: reconciling their colonial past with present realities and future aspirations in an era marked by the pressures of internationalisation and the race to achieve world-class status.

With the exception of Brazil, which emerged from different academic traditions, Latin American universities played a crucial role in nation-building after independence from Spain.

Rooted in Enlightenment ideals, these institutions focused primarily on the professional training of elites, leading to the marginalisation of Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems. More recently, the wave of internationalisation has reinforced this exclusion.

However, this context also offers an opportunity for Latin American universities to imagine a different future. Rather than simply mirroring elite Anglo-Saxon universities, they could follow a path rooted in acknowledging their colonial past, engaging with their Indigenous heritage, asserting their hybrid (‘mestizo/a’) identities and engaging with a more sustainable world.

Intercultural universities

There are many ways in which Latin American universities can engage with their colonial past and Indigenous communities.

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems and languages into the curriculum can provide a counter-narrative to the dominant Euro-American academic discourse.

Universities have the potential to bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and modern science by legitimising and promoting ancestral wisdom. For example, ancestral practices can inspire new research directions in areas such as sustainable agriculture, climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.

In addition, as Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith has shown in New Zealand, research initiatives focused on Indigenous issues and led by Indigenous scholars can foster collaboration between universities and Indigenous communities.

This can ensure that academic work translates into tangible benefits for these communities and promotes respect and development in accordance with their unique socio-cultural contexts.

Universities should proactively implement policies to improve access to higher education for Indigenous students, including affirmative action programmes, financial aid initiatives and comprehensive support services. These measures not only enrich the academic community, but also promote diversity and inclusiveness.

Two good examples come from Ecuador and Mexico. Ecuador’s Amawtay Wasi Intercultural University has become an icon of Indigenous higher education, challenging traditional Eurocentric models.

In Mexico, intercultural universities, strategically located in regions with significant Indigenous populations, offer a novel approach to inclusivity. These institutions integrate local cultures, languages and knowledge systems into their academic programmes.

Engagement with Indigenous communities can help Latin American universities forge a unique, internationally relevant identity. They can make distinctive contributions to global academic discourse, research and innovation, asserting their place in the global academic landscape without compromising their roots.

Embarking on this path requires substantial institutional commitment, challenging entrenched power structures and openness to different ways of knowing. It also requires greater recognition and respect for the rights of Indigenous communities.

The SDGs

Latin American universities have a crucial role to play in contributing to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through their research, teaching and community engagement, they can support and promote sustainable development in ways that are adapted to their unique contexts.

Latin American universities, in particular, can make significant progress by actively integrating and promoting Indigenous knowledge. An example of the alignment between Indigenous knowledge and the SDGs is the principle of buen vivir.

Identified with sumak kawsay (a Quechua term meaning life in abundance) and suma qamaña, (an Aymara term meaning the material and spiritual balance of the individual and their harmonious relationship with all forms of existence), buen vivir or vivir bien means living in abundance. It embodies a holistic worldview that emphasises harmony with nature, community solidarity and a balanced way of life.

Through curriculum development and research, Indigenous knowledge systems can provide valuable insights and solutions for achieving the SDGs. Traditional practices often embody principles of sustainable living and offer lessons in resource conservation, biodiversity protection and community resilience. These align closely with many of the SDGs, such as SDG 3 (health and wellbeing), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 13 (climate action).

Furthermore, Latin American universities that embrace Indigenous knowledges and buen vivir can also represent progress towards SDG 4 (quality education). By recognising the importance of culturally relevant and responsive education, universities are leading the way towards equitable and inclusive higher education systems.

Universities are also critical to advancing SDG 10 (reduce inequalities), as they seek to eliminate disparities in education and expand opportunities for underrepresented communities. In addition, supporting research initiatives led by Indigenous scholars plays an important role in advancing SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).

These initiatives not only contribute to a more inclusive academic community, but also foster a greater sense of ownership and empowerment within Indigenous communities.

By promoting culturally inclusive higher education, integrating sustainable practices and supporting Indigenous-led research, Latin American universities are not only paving the way for academic excellence, but also making significant strides towards global sustainability. This unique approach truly embodies the spirit of the SDGs – transforming our world for the better through partnership, inclusivity and a shared commitment to our planet.

Re-defining ‘world-class’

To meet the demands of the 21st century, Latin American universities must reconcile their past with their future and redefine what it means to be a ‘world-class’ institution. The future of these universities lies in their ability to recognise, learn from, and build on their cultural heritage, colonial legacies and Indigenous knowledges.

Their success should be measured not only by their position in international rankings, but also by their contribution to the betterment of society, both locally and globally. By embarking on this path, Latin American universities can help create a more equitable and inclusive academic landscape, where diversity is celebrated, different ways of knowing coexist and academia serves diverse communities.

This is the true promise and potential of Latin American universities in the 21st century.

Professor Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela works at the faculty of education, Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile. Her research focuses on neoliberalism and its impact on universities, the public/private distinction in higher education, and the North-South divide and its impact on the construction of knowledge.