Why Can’t We Just Get Along? Private and Public Higher Education in Latin America

Where the private sector is young, there has been persistent doubts about the quality of their “product”. 

September 25, 2018

Mass postsecondary education has, in most of the world, meant the dramatic expansion of public higher education and at the same time the growth of a large and increasingly influential private higher education sector. Each sector offers a range of institution types and both play a necessary role. The expansion of the private sector has been particularly dramatic in Latin America, perhaps because higher education was traditionally dominated by public institutions. In Chile, Colombia, Peru the private sector has evolved alongside the public sector.  Almost everywhere, a private sector is a relatively recent phenomenon beginning a rapid expansion that from the 1990s and continuing into the present. In every country except for Cuba the private sector today enrolls a significant percentage of students and in the cases of Chile and Brazil, the large majority.

Yet in Latin America as in most of the world, there is little, if any, integration of public and private higher education sectors. Indeed, antagonism among them is more common. Worse still, each sector often views the other with skepticism if not disdain. Higher education—and the larger society—would be better served if everyone “just got along” and recognized the role and legitimacy of both sectors.

Students opt for private universities over public for multiple reasons. In many countries—Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Panama, to name a few—admission to many public universities is controlled by a competitive examination that allows only a small percentage of the age cohort to enroll. Students who cannot achieve a sufficiently high score on the examination inevitably turn to the private sector. In other countries—Argentina and México are examples—the public sector is highly politicized with the result that strikes and other internal conflicts can interfere with a student’s progress towards his or her or degree. The CRES (Congreso Regional de Educación Superior) in Córdoba last June organized by UNESCO to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Cordoba Reform of 1918 was a dramatic demonstration of the deep political passions that complicate public higher education in the region.

Different Roles and Responsibilities—But a Growing Convergence

In Latin America, Catholic universities educated a tiny elite during Spanish colonial rule. By the 19th century many of these ecclesiastical institutions had been replaced by public universities that continued to serve an elite and prepare (mostly) men for influential roles in national society. With the Córdoba reform in 1918, public universities began to diversify enrollment and throughout the 20th century expanded their degree offerings and changed their character and mission.  

Today most research conducted in Latin America is conducted at public institutions. As a result, these universities generally host a country’s most distinguished researchers and most successful doctoral programs. Research productivity is the gold standard for achieving international stature and subsequently, these public universities are most likely to be included in international rankings.  Private institutions (with very few exceptions) in the region rarely earn this kind of prestige, often equated with quality.

Private universities have tended to focus on preparing students for professional careers and less frequently for research.  These institutions typically offer “low-cost” degree programs—those academic programs that do not require expensive infrastructure such as laboratories or sophisticated technology. What private institutions do offer is a stable and predictable environment without political interruptions that can be common in the public sector.

Ironically, private and public institutions often share the same professors.  Since few Latin American universities hire full-time professors, many faculty members travel from institution to institution to piece together a living, often crossing the private/public boundary. Additionally, higher education in Latin America follows very traditional degree outlines with little variation in structure or content from one institution to another, or from one sector to another.

Mutual Distrust and Disdain

Where the private sector is young, there has been persistent doubts about the quality of their “product”. There is an unjustified belief that charging tuition and generating revenue from education are incompatible with quality. This is not surprising. In their essay, Will the invisible hand fix private higher education in Latin America?,  de Moura Castro and Navarro point out that staff in government agencies in many countries in the region, particularly ministries of education, tend to be graduates of public universities. Private universities are viewed suspiciously as “businesses” more concerned with profit than educational quality. While there is some truth in this, as the region has a healthy share of “garage universities” as well as some larger institutions devoted more to financial margin than education, there are also private universities that have earned their bona fides as serious institutions, graduating students who have gone on to successful careers or to graduate study at high prestige universities throughout the world.

The disdain goes both ways. Private institutions rarely have access to public funds and their leadership often resents being excluded. Animosity is fueled by suspicion of corruption, poor management, political interests and waste at public institutions.

Why isn’t Accreditation Enough?

Concerns about quality in the rapidly expanding private sector led to the creation of quality assurance agencies throughout the region. While these agencies have attempted to assuage concerns by obliging private (and often public) institutions to participate in the elaborate processes of self-evaluation and peer review, doubts about quality remain.

Accreditation in the region tends towards long checklists of standards and indicators. Compliance does little to improve an institution’s image, only confirms that an institution has met minimum standards. While this is an important step to provide the public with the assurance that a university is viable, it has not been sufficient to resolve the disdain that the private and public sectors often demonstrate towards one another.

Worse still, there are faulty syllogisms resulting from individual bias—if my institution is accredited, but an institution I deem inferior is also accredited then accreditation does not guarantee quality.

The Private Sector is Here to Stay

With the massification of enrollment, the importance of higher education in preparing individuals for modern economies and the need for continuing, lifelong education, governments will never be able to fully meet demand. The private sector is a necessary complement to the public. In an ideal world, these two sectors would work collaboratively towards the improvement of quality in the higher education system as a whole. There have been some small steps in that direction in Brazil but it’s a steep uphill climb.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top