There is little doubt that the overall quality of higher education in Latin America has improved during the last several decades. This is not to say that the “garage universities” or fake universities that will offer a degree to any student who can pay the fees are entirely gone, but fewer remain. Accreditation programs, greater accountability to external entities, and regular evaluations have motivated institutions to collect and track data more effectively, to consider how they might do better, and produce improvement plans. Herein lies the problem. Improvement builds on what has been done in the past without fully stopping to question whether the past is still appropriate or relevant.
Higher education in Latin America builds on a mix of the French and German tradition, emphasizing the focused preparation of professionals or the cultivation of academic researchers who will most likely dedicate themselves to scholarship at research centers. Preparing individuals for a future career through lectures that impart professionally-relevant content prevails as the predominant model.
This pattern might be reasonable if the world around us hadn’t changed. Cell phones and other portable electronics now ensure that all kinds of information are readily available; we no longer need to cram the human brain with information; many employment opportunities that exist today will be gone tomorrow. Reform is urgently needed but a complex pattern of practically intractable circumstances conspires against.
With few exceptions, most of higher education in Latin America focuses inward with limited focus on international trends, best international practice or the needs of the social or economic environment. There is little attention paid to the research and science informing us about how students learn, particularly the generation currently enrolled or about to enter higher education. If there is any concern with international practice, it tends to focus on rankings and how to improve a country’s (or institution’s position). The result is a largely isolated region of scholarship and practice.
There is too little communication between higher education and the job market. Considering that most university graduates will pursue employment rather than further study upon graduation, this is a serious problem. Although this situation is not unique to Latin America, many universities in countries outside of the region have developed internship and co-op programs that allow undergraduates to have exposure to the job market before completing their studies, the opportunity to apply classroom experience to a different environment and to recognize the skills and knowledge they will need to be successful later. The process of establishing sites for this type of experience creates an important communication link between the university and future employers. Although some of my Latin American colleagues will argue that since many students work while studying and since many professors are part-time teachers and full-time professionals that a strong link to the professional labor market exists, but it is not the same thing as the intentional connection of study to practice.
The region continues to adhere to rigid, narrowly-focused, content-laden degree programs. With only a handful of exceptions, every university in the region requires students to make a career choice at age 17 or 18. This situation is made worse due to the lack of career orientation and guidance in secondary school. It is unlikely that many 18-year old’s can name more than a dozen professions—doctor, lawyer, engineer, dentist, psychologist, etc.—yet we know that opportunities in many traditional fields are diminishing or (at least) changing, and that many new jobs that we can’t quite imagine will be created as a result of advances in science and technology. We also know that today’s graduates will change jobs frequently, often to different fields of practice.
There is a growing body of evidence that we need to prepare students with less field-related content in favor of a broader base of skills—with some essential content knowledge—and the ability to adapt to change. These results will not come from a five-year degree that focuses exclusively on content for a specific career but rather a varied educational foundation that crosses disciplinary boundaries.
Interdisciplinary study has yet to arrive in Latin America. But who could doubt that a lawyer who aspires to work in a court wouldn’t benefit from training in theater? Or that an engineer who hopes to develop a new process or product wouldn't benefit from courses in literature or communication to learn how to present his or her ideas effectively to a potential investor? Or that a doctor wouldn't benefit from some understanding of artificial intelligence? Combining fields of study not only enriches an individual’s education, but also expands ways of thinking and the capacity for analysis from different perspectives. A broader education ultimately provides a stronger base for future adaptability.
The older public institutions throughout the region have defined what a university should be and the standards by which most (if not all) other institutions are judged, limiting latitude for innovation. As a result, while the private sector has grown exponentially almost everywhere, it duplicates what the public sector offers—sometimes less, sometimes equally, and sometimes more effectively.
Improving higher education requires extensive involvement and commitment from faculty. Another handicap that constrains higher education reform in the region is the dependence on part-time teachers. This is problematic on many levels. With professors juggling complicated schedules that combine teaching at multiple institutions or teaching combined with other remunerative activities, dedicating time to thoughtful, coherent strategies for educational reform is a luxury few can consider. When individuals are only paid for the classes they teach, there are few incentives to spend time focusing on international trends, the research on teaching and learning or other areas of personal professional development.
The reliance on part-time faculty creates an additional dilemma that works against the kind of curriculum overhaul needed. Each class taught provides necessary income to an individual. Removing classes from the course-laden degree programs has economic consequences for many.
The “Consejos Superiores,” the governing bodies at public institutions have the authority to undertake serious reform, but this is an elected group and may or may not persist long enough to undertake significant change. Unfortunately, these Consejos also tend give priority to decisions that benefit their individual political constituents over long-term educational goals.
Private sector institutions should be expected to be more responsive to labor market needs since they complete for income from student fees, and students are likely to be attracted to fields of study with the best prospects for future employment. This dynamic operates with only minimal efficiency; it assumes that employers make good hiring decisions. While employers throughout the region complain that university graduates do not possess necessary skills, they continue to hire students with traditional profiles. When regional employers begin to follow Google’s lead and hire individuals based on their knowledge, skills, and talents—whether or not they have a university degree—higher education will have to respond.
Higher education throughout Latin America is in need of dramatic transformation. In a few instances progressive and visionary leaders have attempted reform through the creation of new institutions or programs, or through the introduction of new strategies at existing institutions. Innovation has been stymied at many levels—either by faculty and staff without incentives or adequate support to adapt or by external regulatory bodies locked into rigid traditional models. Reform is necessary and urgent, but it’s difficult to see how it will occur.