Rankings season is a time of bad news for Latin American universities. In its latest release (October 3d.), the Times Higher Education World University Ranking put no Latin American university in the group of the best 100, and only four amongst the entire cast of 400.
What is wrong with us? As Andrés Oppenheimer, the Argentine journalist and Latin American editor of The Miami Herald columnist has observed, Brazil is the sixth economy and Mexico the 14th in the world, which should count for something when it comes to the possibility of supporting fine institutions of higher education. Sure, some of the well placed European and American Ivy League universities have been around for a very long time, and that helps with reputation, one of the weightier variables measured by this particular ranking, but some of the oldest institutions in Latin America also date back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Further, the universities showing greatest progress in the rankings, most of them located in Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and China, are rather new, and youth seems not to be a hindrance for them.
In typical Latin American fashion, university leaders in this part of the world shoot the messenger, suspect global conspiracy, and seek refuge in an idiosyncratic parallel universe: a group met in Mexico in May, backed by UNESCO, to denounce the global rankings as invalid measurements of quality, decry the “Anglo Saxon” bias in them, and proclaim that given than universities in this part of the world are different, rankings should be designed that reflect the “social” mission of universities in Latin America, an elusive concept to name what universities supposedly do in here that is not research, or teaching, or transfer of research results, or indeed any of the functions associated with the university as an institution elsewhere in the world.
An interest group headed by flagship national universities, such as the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the Universidad de Buenos Aires, The Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and the Universidad de Chile (precisely those that should be doing a lot better in the rankings if their scientific performance were to match their lofty notions of themselves), will likely continue to turn their backs to what global rankings consistently show: that Latin American higher education remains at the outer ring of the modern quest for knowledge, more a spectator than an actor.
If, however, university leaders were to consider the possibility that there is some truth reflected in the rankings, here are a couple of hypothesis of what might be wrong with universities in Latin America.
First and foremost: faculty. Not the numbers of them, not their vocation and dedication to the university, not the quality of their teaching. The problem lies with their lack of qualification for what in the rest of the world passes for legitimate research, their limited ability to use English to access mainstream knowledge, and unsustainably low salaries. At most of the best universities in Latin America (with the exception of Brazil’s top 20 or so) academic staff with PhDs remain a minority and fluency in languages other than Spanish and Portuguese is still exceptional. There are a host of perfectly understandable reasons for this, but the fact remains that no internationally competitive research performance can be expected of faculty who have not been trained to carry out research (including in this group many who have scrambled mid-career or later in life to get a doctorate from a mediocre program), or from academics whose entire knowledge base is what is published in Spanish or Portuguese. Nor can it be expected where salaries are so low that nominally full time faculty work two or three jobs to make a decent living, as is the case everywhere save a limited number of universities in the region.
The second major roadblock is the governance of institutions and the steering of the national higher education systems. University autonomy, practically an object of religious attachment in Latin America, for decades served the noble function of keeping corrupt, incompetent, loony or autocratic governments out of universities. Sadly, in some countries that continues to be necessary today. But in most of the region stable democracies with reasonable leadership are consolidating a space for dialogue where universities can develop policy in partnership with elected officials, rather than slamming the door of autonomy in their faces. Why is this important? Because most Latin American universities, especially in the public sector, do not have the political will to reform themselves, and they need to work with their governments (as universities increasingly do in Europe, Australia and Asia) to find mechanisms to renew academic cadres, make more research money available to those who can use it productively, reform career structures and salary schedules, introduce long- term, strategic decision making, curb administrative bloat, and reassign monies within universities and across universities in a system, to name but a few badly needed corrections.