In March, 2016, during one weekend in the beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia, a group of 25 experts of Higher Education in Latin America met in an informal setting to discuss the main challenges of higher education in the region. The group had attendees from many Latin American countries and the US, including academics from Universities, consultants, funding agencies, among others. In fact, the meeting started a day before with an interesting seminar held at the Universidad del Norte, in Barranquilla.
Although there is a rather long university tradition in some countries of the region, the higher education system is still quite underdeveloped, albeit its unprecedented growth in enrollments and numbers of institutions in the last 30 years, which have expanded access considerably and provided groups, previously excluded, with opportunities for higher education. The political and economic instabilities, allied with urgent challenges in many other sectors, makes the actual landscape of HE in LA extremely complex. Each country has a different history, public policies, and challenges, but there are some strikingly common issues in the higher education sector that deserve further thought. One of the most visible aspects is the perennial dislocation between the trajectory of higher education in Latin America and higher education in the rest of the world. Not only is higher education in the region not improving at the same pace that in other parts of the world, but often times, large parts of it seem to deliberately want to go against global trends. It is not the public policy part of higher education that challenges worldwide currents. On the contrary, with few exceptions, governments have pushed institutions (not always wisely, no doubt) to be more accountable, more effective, more inclusive, more productive, and more efficient. It is mostly the universities, especially those—usually public—at the apex of each national system, that have chosen to tread their own path of resistance to change and preservation of the interests of their internal constituents at the expense of much needed “aggiornamiento”. Of course, the fact that some of our universities ignore reforms taking place elsewhere does not prove them wrong in rejecting examples from abroad, but certainly puts the burden of proof on those who want to stay the same, for it is unlikely (not impossible, just unlikely) that higher education systems as marginal as those of Latin America may be privy to development tracks unbeknown to more advanced systems.
Linked to this problem is the obsolescence of the governance structures and practices of the public higher education sector in the region, that evolved in a strongly corporative atmosphere, which hinders the further development of the good public universities. These universities have, for the most part, done hitherto great service to their countries and their societies. The question is whether they are prepared to move to the next step, as demanded from the knowledge society. Often politically active faculty, often in alliance with students and administrative staff with governance rights, successfully block attempts to make universities more accountable to stakeholders other than their own faculty and their vested interests. The younger generation of scholars, largely better trained for research than their predecessors, find it hard to get academic jobs in universities clogged with ageing professors who cling to their posts because, with very few exceptions, retirement is financially ruinous. Good quality work in some parts of the system exist in spite, not because, of the governing arrangements of the universities and their administrative procedures.
Money is an issue too: higher education is generally underfunded in the region. But ministers of finance are reluctant to contemplate increasing public investment in higher education if institutions aren´t willing to guarantee they will use the extra money transparently and effectively. This puts the systems in a bind: improving is difficult in the absence of increased funding. It is no surprise then, that much of the growth has taken place in the private sectors of higher education. As private institutions successfully stake claims on public funding, a private vs. public tension emerges, allied to the discussion of who pays for what, which are the public goods worth subsidizing, what funds should be allocated competitively and which as direct transfers, what are the quality requirements below which no public money should be invested, and other related issues that are hot in the policy debate in several countries of the region these days.
The important issue of expanding the access to higher education, with the corresponding challenges of economical sustainability, quality, and social inclusion, is also a common characteristic of the region. While most countries have expanded access enormously, some are still lagging behind, especially in Central America, with gross enrollment rates below 30%. Where access has increased fastest, countries are now dealing with the detrimental effects on quality of unregulated, unsupported, hasty expansion. Accreditation and other quality assurance mechanisms are now ubiquitous in the region, and have had some beneficial impact in promoting internal assessment, quality control, and improvement.
Although these and other challenges in the region are gigantic, it is worth noting that the higher education sector has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and it is well known that the pace of change of universities is considerably slower than that of other organizations, considering their long historical roots, a certain necessary detachment from the here and now, and their generally privileged station in society. There are interesting movements towards a diversification of the higher education system in some countries, as well as increasing concern regarding social inclusion and affirmative actions. The region has some important examples of massive assessment exams, and a graduate education that is continuously improving. Also, an interesting outcome of the Cartagena meeting was the realization that there is a good and rapidly growing number of people, committed to the study of the several aspects of higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean, and willing to actively participate in proposing possible solutions, by means of a collaborative effort.
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