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Seen from an international perspective, the higher education systems of the Ibero-American countries present fascinating contrasts. They can take pride in the very rapid enrollment increases in recent years and significant efforts to improve the quality of learning and research in a growing number of universities. Several countries, especially in Latin America, demonstrate a high degree of institutional differentiation with a wide range of public and private universities and non-university tertiary institutions—from technical institutes to technology-focused universities, from small professional schools to large research universities.
Furthermore, the Latin American higher education systems boast some innovative aspects linked to policies to promote equity, the assessment of learning outcomes, and the monitoring of graduates in the labor market, something found in only a few countries worldwide. Following the example of ICETEX in Colombia—the first student loan agency in the world— several countries now rely on this mechanism to improve opportunities for students from disadvantaged groups, most significantly in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Other initiatives to make high quality universities more inclusive are also worth mentioning, such as the affirmative action program at UNICAMP in Brazil, bridge schemes to bring talented low income high school graduates into public universities in Chile, and the Colombian private university, Uniminuto, established with the mission of offering a high quality education to students from the most marginalized urban and rural socioeconomic sectors. Brazil and Colombia are among the few developing countries with a national assessment system to measure student learning outcomes. Finally, Chile and Colombia have been pioneers in the development of labor market observatories—Mi Futuro and Graduados Colombia, respectively—to follow the professional trajectories of university graduates.
In spite of these positive features, the achievements of the Ibero-American higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the current economic heft or the long scholarly tradition of these countries. Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Ibero-American systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, suffer from relatively lower levels of public funding, and are characterized by inadequate governance.
Research funding in Latin America ranges from 0.3 to 1 percent of GDP, while the Nordic countries invest between 3 and 4 percent of their GDP. In terms of governance, universities in the Ibero-American region, especially the public ones, are subject to the influence of interest groups resistant to change, suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems. What are the concrete results of these differences?
Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, while its universities account for only 2.2 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking, and 2.6 percent of the top 500 universities in the Leiden ranking that focuses on publications and their impact. The poor performance of large countries such as Brazil and Mexico—the sixth and tenth economies of the world, respectively—is particularly striking in contrast with the impressive results of smaller countries like the Netherlands, that has four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, or Israel with three universities. The tiny territory of Hong Kong places as many universities in the Shanghai ranking as the Brazilian giant!
In Europe, the two Ibero-American countries, Spain and Portugal, also fail to achieve good outcomes. A recent study commissioned by the Spanish government and undertaken by a group of distinguished academics deplores the absence of Spanish universities of excellence and the low scientific production of the country. Not one Spanish or Portuguese university appears among the top 200 in the Shanghai ranking, in contrast with large European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and even smaller nations like Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.
For the situation to change for the better in the Ibero-American countries, two key factors appear to be missing. First, each of these countries needs to elaborate a comprehensive and audacious national vision of the future role of higher education, translating that vision into a strategic plan with adequate investment and spelling out the concrete reforms and actions needed for its implementation.
Second, Ibero-American nations need to build their capacity to design and implement deep and consensual reforms with significant increases in public spending for higher education and research while modernizing governance structures and administrative processes. To be successful, these reforms must be designed and accepted as long-term state policies, rather than prepared and identified as the proposal of a specific government and limited by the typically short electoral horizon. It would make such a difference if the Ibero-American countries would show as much enthusiasm for the transformation of their higher education system as for the results of their national soccer teams!