Further Perspectives on Latin American Reform

Notwithstanding a conventional narrative that reforms largely failed, I argue that they contributed significantly to much of what became and remains best about the region’s higher education.

January 10, 2019

In sending her recent provocative blog “Is Innovation Possible in Latin America?“ (January 3, 2019) to fellow contributors to The World View, Liz Reisberg made a point of soliciting disagreement. I “accommodate” here, though with the crucial caveat that I know we agree on most matters regarding both general appraisal and particular policies. What passes here for disagreement boils down partly to how we frame matters, with what contrasting emphases. Our perspectives no doubt trace partly to our different experiences. Ms. Reisberg has written amply and I’ve done considerable on-the-ground policy work, but she has logged much more time in the trenches while I’ve been mostly in the Ivory Tower. 

My emphasis turns out on balance (for we each see both considerable problems and considerable progress) less dire than Ms. Reisberg’s. One key to this difference lies in my accentuating ample differentiation. In that respect, I draw here not only off my own scholarly works, but also off the Inter-American Bank’s first-ever higher education policy paper, 1997, co-authored by its then education director, Claudio de Moura Castro, and me. I see the powerful, disheartening truths in Reisberg’s blog as yet further painful testimony that the policy paper has had little policy impact, while I continue to believe its “Dx” and “Rx” were basically on the mark—and continue to be.

I especially appreciate that Reisberg’s opening credits significant strides, as this contrasts to seemingly incessant talk of Latin American higher education in crisis; in reality, there’s long been plenty of “good news” worth conveying. I nonetheless concede that it’s tempting to go even further than Reisberg on the bleak side. In comparative perspective, I share some of the fashionable worry that Latin America’s resistance to reform makes it fall further behind other regions. Yet what developing regions are free of problems of at least partly comparable degree (whether the same problems or their own distinctive ones)? The usual answer is Asia but take away a chunk of East Asia (which includes developed as well as developing countries) and the remaining Asia isn’t such an obvious outlier. In longitudinal perspective, while I agree with Reisberg that some of Latin America’s immobility is exacerbated in the cell phone era, I think most of the culprits she cites are longstanding (the professionalist structure, academics’ resistance to reform, poor links to the job market, heavy reliance on part-timers, excess replication of traditional forms, etc.). These were all primary targets of major reform in the 1950s-1970s-centered partnership between domestic reformers and international foundations and other agencies. Notwithstanding a conventional narrative that these reforms largely failed—because look at the damn systems overall!—I argue that they contributed significantly to much of what became and remains best about the region’s higher education. As with comparative perspective, so with longitudinal perspective, one could see it either deepening or blunting a dire picture: the chief problems Reisberg identifies aren’t just new, possibly just temporary, but neither do they represent fresh or much worsening reality.  

The contrast between the overall too-little-reformed system and ample positive pockets illustrates my emphasis on differentiation. That emphasis cuts against broader generalization and helps produce the less bleak portrait than Reisberg’s. And as her piece concentrates not just on diagnosis but reform, it’s vital to note that our different emphases have some importantly conflicting implications for reform (though also overlapping implications). One key matter of differentiation I often emphasize is the degree of institutional autonomy in the region, which I see as a major deviation from the French model Reisberg cites. Reform in France or much of Europe, though more in the 60s than today, was a matter of general reform for the system. Less so for Latin America (yet of course somewhat so). 

The autonomy and reform points are epitomized by the size and vibrancy of the private sector in Latin America. Europe has never had anything like it, even as here too we can allow for some change in recent decades. Private is significantly different from public in many though far from all important respects. Moreover, the private sector is itself enormously differentiated internally. Thus, for example, while many of Latin America’s non-elite privates do in some ways simply copy a traditional public paradigm (a) even the non-elite privates are hugely distinctive from the publics in crucial ways and (b) the many semi-elite and related Catholic universities are even more distinctive in several important respects, often pointedly contrasting themselves to their public counterparts. Financially, almost all the private types depend on private funding, mostly tuition, while the publics depend still mostly on government subsidy (Chile the greatest partial exception). In governance, almost all the private types are much more hierarchical internally (and thus less susceptible than public universities to the academic senate resistance to reform Reisberg rightly cites). And stark private-public differences intensify as the region moves increasingly into for-profit private. Meanwhile, though religion is a weakening differentiating factor it still counts, and at least the better parts of private higher education are comparatively attuned to the job market (another major problem Reisberg rightly cites). None of this is to say simply that private is better than public but that the sectors are substantially different, calling for different diagnoses and reforms. 

Apart from the institutional differentiation, however much related to it, is functional differentiation. The IDB policy paper emphasized the existing functional differentiation and advocated reform based around sharpening that differentiation. Thus, for example, the predominance of part-timers (which Reisberg cites) isn’t itself a problem for the system so much as it is for what the IDB paper calls the “academic leadership” function (where enrollment should be restricted) and for “general higher education,” which parallels Reisberg’s notion of teaching more how to think than how to do a particular job. On the other hand, both “technical” and “professional” higher education should be rather directly job-oriented, logically benefiting from heavy exposure to practitioners teaching part-time. Further on part-timers, there’s now ample differentiation among types of part-timers (as shown in a recent dissertation on Chile), some types more suited to different functions. Related to Reisberg’s call for more interdisciplinary work, we might agree for certain pursuits and places while arguing that in “academic leadership” the deficiency lies at least as much in the lack of disciplinary development. I also think there’s more interdisciplinary activity than a reader might infer. Reisberg’s point about early career decisions remains vital but it’s also true that professional faculties have long exposed their own students to courses from other disciplines, albeit taught for their own students (rather than university-wide).  On the research end, the abundance of research centers both within and outside universities often epitomizes inter-disciplinary work--as shown even in our own little field of higher education study. 


Daniel Levy is Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York, teaching at SUNY-Albany's Department of Educational Policy & Leadership, and directing the global Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE).



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