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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

Professionalizing Higher Ed in Latin America: Small Initiatives with Big Payoffs
March 3, 2011 - 11:15am

While Latin American universities are certainly attentive to rankings and their poor showing in most of them, there is a growing trend to focus on other things. These new activities will not have any impact on institutional standing in those inevitable international competitions but they just might improve the quality of the education Latin American universities deliver.

Masters degrees and short certificate programs in university teaching are popping up like mushrooms throughout the region. A quick Google search with the terms (in Spanish) “masters programs in university teaching” returns a long list of programs in Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, and elsewhere. Latin America has been stuck for centuries in the model of a professor speaking to a room of silent students taking notes. Years ago a quote circulated in Argentina that went like this, “From the mouth of the professor, to the writing hand of the student without passing through the mind of either.” These new masters programs reflect a new way of thinking about university teaching---they blend classes about university history and tradition with theory and practical topics that are directly applicable to improving classroom teaching. New areas often included are the integration of technology, instruments for evaluating student learning, and sometimes topics such as encouraging creativity.

One example is a new masters program in university teaching at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) where 28,000 professors of all ranks teach approximately 310,000 students. The UBA is well known for its high dropout rate. Of course there are many contributing factors, especially at an institution with open admission. Few professors at the UBA or elsewhere in the world are taught how to confront this type of diversity. For that matter, few professors in the world are taught to teach. Professors are scholars in a specific discipline; generally the only exposure to pedagogy is their experience as students. At some individual schools and colleges at the UBA there are short courses for new faculty but starting in April the university will offer a masters program that is groundbreaking on several levels. First, because this initiative is open to professors across all schools and colleges at the UBA and at all levels from teaching assistants to senior professors. This presents a rare opportunity for cross-disciplinary discussion in a non-political environment. Second, this program will accept in transfer, study completed in the programs in university teaching offered at the different faculties. At a university that won’t allow undergraduate economics majors to transfer classes they have completed into an accounting program if they change their mind about which degree program to pursue, this is most impressive! The masters program will consider the history of curriculum before embarking on an analysis of teaching strategies and different approaches to pedagogy. Participants in the program will also learn different methodologies and instruments for evaluating learning. Currently under discussion is an ongoing relationship with “tutors” who will help graduates integrate new knowledge into their classroom activities. The program will initially enroll 40 students. It’s a miniscule effort with a teaching faculty in the tens of thousands but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

In previous blogs The World View has discussed the challenge of the selection and training university management. In much of the world, the individuals who are elected or appointed to key positions such as Rector, Vice-rector, Dean, etc. are often accomplished scholars in Economics, Physics, Medicine, Agriculture, or another academic discipline. As talented as these individuals may be as scholars, they rarely have the broad knowledge necessary to make strategic decisions for their institution. There are a number of new initiatives to provide training and orientation to these individuals as they step into management roles.

The deficit of adequately prepared leadership in higher education is also starting to receive attention. Although there are fewer certificate and graduate programs in the region than in the area of university teaching, they are starting to appear. In Brazil, a new Center of Advanced Studies at the University of Campinas is developing an executive program to provide university leadership with broader knowledge of higher education and international trends. This program will offer basic knowledge in areas such as strategic planning, evaluating quality, student services to improve the effectiveness of admission and retention, appropriate integration of technology and more. The program will provide important “macro” perspective that will complement the knowledge institutional managers already have about their own organization and result in a stronger foundation for debate, reflection and policy.

While these are small initiatives, they are important steps towards the professionalization of higher education in Latin American. They reflect more attention to good management and good teaching—two areas often overlooked by the rankings. Latin America may not climb in the rankings in the near future but if these types of initiatives expand, the region’s universities will certainly be better for it.


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