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Argentina holds a title no country should be proud of, as it has one of the highest university dropout rates in the world. For every 100 students who enroll each year, at both private and publicly financed universities, only 27 manage to graduate, making the drop-out rate about 73 percent. The figures are striking, and even more so when compared with those for other countries in Latin America: 50 percent for Brazil, 41 percent for Chile and 39 percent for Mexico.

According to a report recently issued by the Centre of Studies on Argentine Education (CEA) supported by the University of Belgrano, the situation is even more critical at state-financed institutions, where only 23 of students attain their degree. The report is based on figures for 2010, the latest officially available.

The big question, of course, is why this is happening, bearing in mind that tuition at publicly financed universities in Argentina is free and admission is mostly unrestricted for high school graduates.  The reasons, however, may be found precisely behind these apparent “advantages” for the student.

For decades, free tuition at public higher education institutions in Argentina  has justified the lack of a meaningful scholarship system. Even if they do not have to pay tuition, many students still need to work long hours to support themselves. The University of Buenos Aires (UBA), the largest university in the country, reports that almost 63 percent of its 305,000 students hold jobs.  And almost half of them work between 36 and 45 hours a week.

In the fields of engineering and hard sciences, for example, a hungry job market puts pressure on the students close to graduation to accept job offers without completing their degree in order to fill unmet demand for human resources in these areas.  In 2010, for every 1,000 lawyers who graduated from both private and public universities, there were only 300 engineers, 51 chemists, 29 mathematicians and nine physicists.  Out of those 300 engineers, only 24 specialized in oil drilling and 13 in nuclear energy, areas of particularly high need in Argentina. As a result, most of those students start working full-time while studying and find it very hard to complete their demanding program of studies.

Unrestricted open admission, widely portrayed in Argentina as “a conquest of the students”, has helped to mask the decaying standards of the country’s elementary and high school systems.

According to the study carried out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), that tests the performance of 15-year-olds in the fields of mathematics, science and reading in over 70 countries worldwide, Argentina has slipped to the next-to-last place in Latin America among participating states during the past decade, and is now below Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil and only ahead of Peru in scholastic achievement.

For a country that once prided itself on its education system, the PISA findings surprised few upon their publication a few days ago. Argentina has no nationwide standardized exams at the end of high school, as many other countries do. Moreover, students lack motivation to do well at school as they only need to have a certificate of completion to enroll at most universities in the country.

The response of Argentina’s Education Minister, Alberto Sileoni was even more worrisome than the PISA results. Dismissing the PISA findings as unfair and scoffing at their usefulness, the minister questioned the fact that the results did not take into account important aspects such as “personal effort.” “It is not necessary to know how badly or well we are doing,” he said speaking, of all places, at the World Congress of Comparative Education held in Buenos Aires. His comments highlight the national government´s effort to hide any figures that might draw attention to their inability to solve these and other problems. They also reveal the lack of political will in the current administration to make meaningful changes in the area of education.

The University of Buenos Aires created the CBC (or Core Curriculum Program)  thirty years ago to make up for the shortcomings of high school. The CBC is a first-year course where students are required to pass six exams before they can start attending classes in the degree program of their choice.Since then, as the PISA results show, secondary school standards have sunk even lower. Only 38 percent of all students who enroll in the CBC  manage to complete the course in two semesters, as designed. This underscores the lack of adequate preparation at the secondary level to tackle university study.  

It is precisely the widespread perception that public education standards are falling that caused enrollment at private institutions to increase dramatically as enrolment at public schools and universities decreased in the last decade. Enrollment at private universities has almost doubled in the last ten years. According to the CEA report, private universities today enroll  20 percent of all university students in the country but with a graduation rate of 29 percent.

Free tuition at publicly financed universities along with open admission have always been considered the key to equal opportunities and upward social mobility in Argentina. Questioning their effectiveness is regarded as politically incorrect. However, figures show that “equal opportunities” for students is deceptive. A large number of students who enroll at public universities have graduated from private high schools, while very few students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Against this backdrop, publicly financed institutions are spending huge amounts of money per graduate while other more pressing education matters are not being addressed. Lack of planning and postponed strategic decisions result in costly imbalances. As an example, despite the high drop-out rate, in Argentina there are 10 medical doctors for each  nursing graduate.

Whatever the reasons behind the drop-out phenomenon at Argentina´s universities, one thing is certain. Unless the problem is addressed, it will continue to cost the students and a larger public dearly, measured in misplaced energy and shattered hopes. And for Argentina it will mean a waste of scarce resources with very little to show for it.

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