Ask an Argentine scholar about the University of Buenos Aires and there is usually a long pause. And maybe a deep breath. And then everyone has a lot to say. The University of Buenos Aires (or UBA is it is usually called) is one of the oldest universities in Argentina. With more than 300,000 students enrolled, it is also one of the largest universities in the hemisphere, comparable only to the UNAM in Mexico. The UBA is public, tuition free and enrolls any high school graduate wishing to pursue a university degree.
The UBA is controversial by anyone’s standards. During the last century, it has stood in opposition to many of the nation’s governments and (often as a result) suffered interventions by military governments. It has also been the victim of multiple financial crises and a perpetually inadequate budget. Today the schools and colleges of the UBA today are a gallery of graffiti and political posters and a wreckage of deteriorating infrastructure. The once elegant leather chairs in the UBA’s lecture halls are slashed or torn; tiles fall off the walls along the long hallways of the medical school; only 1 of 6 elevators functions at the university hospital. To all outward appearances, this is an institution in decline if not decay.
As though the physical state of the university wasn’t sufficient cause for doubt, fewer than 20% of the professors are hired full time; fewer than 30% have earned PhDs; and undergraduate attrition (allowing 6 years for degree completion) is roughly 70% of the entering class. Some schools (e.g., the law school) have almost no full time faculty at all. Rather classes are taught be professionals whose primary activities and attention are elsewhere.
How then, does this university maintain the respect and prestige of a nation? Is an entire country wedded to the memory of what the UBA was during its golden age in the 1950s? Why do so many people still insist that the UBA produces the country’s best qualified researchers? The best lawyers? The best qualified doctors? That the crumbling university hospital provides medical attention as good as can be found anywhere in the world by Argentina’s best physicians? How does one explain that UBA graduates pursue postgraduate degrees successfully at world class universities throughout the world? One might point to the assertion made first by Guillermo Jaím Etcheverry, a former UBA Rector, and subsequently by my colleague, Philip Altbach, and accept that there is a Darwinian principle being demonstrated at the UBA—that the best and most “fit,” graduate. If one assumes that this small cohort that traversed the challenges and obstacles of the UBA’s bureaucracy represents the brightest of the UBA’s entering class than it is no surprise that they should be internationally competitive. But even then, given the UBA environment, how do they learn?
There are many lessons that might be drawn from the strange success of the UBA but with no data we can only speculate. One might assume that the small percentage of the entering class that successfully completes their degree in a reasonable period of time is the cohort that had the best academic preparation in primary and secondary school. One might also speculate that this group might have more parental guidance to provide support in an environment almost entirely devoid of support services.
But perhaps we underestimate the unusual skills that this chaotic environment encourages. In the US and increasingly elsewhere, we are inclined toward student-centered learning with support and guidance to insure success. The UBA simply leaves students to develop their own personal resources—to be self-teaching, self-motivated, focused, tenacious. I am not advocating this approach for other universities but one has to wonder if too many support services are incompatible with the development of personal resources that will serve graduates well in whatever pursuit they choose.