A 2013 report published in the United Kingdom proposed the image of “an avalanche” to describe the radical changes affecting tertiary education in many parts of the world (Barber, M., Donnelly, K., and S. Rizvi, 2013). Indeed, a growing number of rupture factors are at play in transforming the ecosystem in which tertiary education institutions are operating, drastically influencing how they perform their teaching and research functions. Among these rupture factors are technological innovations such as flipped classrooms for interactive learning, mass online open courses (MOOCS) reaching hundred of thousands of students all over the world, new forms of competition from for-profit and corporate universities that provide professional qualifications closely linked to labor market needs, and new accountability modalities like the global rankings, which allow to measure and compare the performance of universities across all continents.
Despite their methodological weaknesses, the rankings are the principal tool that has helped identify the most outstanding universities in the world with objective criteria, and that has allowed to identify the main factors that explain their success. Governance, in particular, has come out as one of the key determinants of high performance universities.
In the past decade, many countries have undertaken significant reforms to modernize the regulatory framework in which their tertiary education institutions operate, moving from a centralized control model to a decentralized system where universities enjoy substantial autonomy. Autonomous universities are characterized by the existence of an independent board with a majority of representatives of external stakeholders, professional criteria and procedures for the selection of the leadership team, and flexible human resource rules and policies for the recruitment and retention of staff and the determination of salaries.
However, universities in the Ibero-American world are not at the forefront of these reforms, quite the opposite. They tend to suffer from serious limitations because of their populist traditions, characterized by the democratic election of university presidents or rectors by the entire academic community, high levels of inbreeding, and a lack of international outlook, as can be seen in Spain and most of Latin America.
In the Spanish case, the absence of internationally recognized universities and the low scientific output of the country is as source of concern, as pointed out by a recent study prepared by a group of leading academics at the request of the Spanish government. No Spanish university appears among the top 200 universities in the world in the latest Shanghai ranking of Shanghai, while other large European countries such as the UK, France or Germany or even small economies such as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden have a strong presence in the group of top universities.
Of particular importance in improving the Spanish public university system is the need for reforming the composition and role of the governing bodies as well as the selection process of rectors and deans. The reality is that the current governance model supports the collective decision-making process that imposes the immediate interests of stakeholders over the academic excellence that society needs ... the processes are always too long, complex and riddled with bureaucracy and inefficiencies (Report of the Expert Committee on the Reform of the Spanish University System, 2013).
In the second case, although Latin America has 8.5% of the world's population and produces 8.7% of global GDP, its universities represent only 2.2% of the top 500 in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5% of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education rankings, and 2.6% of the top 500 universities in the bibliometric ranking of Leiden. The performance of Brazil and Mexico (respectively sixth and fourteenth economies in the world) compares poorly with the impressive achievements of small countries like Israel, with three universities among the top hundred in the world in the Shanghai ranking, or Netherlands with two universities. In both cases, these modest results can be attributed to the lack of high-quality leadership, internal politics and a populist platform that does not leave room for in-depth reforms .
Recently, the Premier of the Canadian province of Ontario traveled to Minnesota and gave a speech in which he observed that “in today’s world all countries are alike, you can borrow your capital you can copy technology, you can buy raw materials. There is only one thing left to make a difference and that is talent”. This belief is clearly reflected in the priority that the dynamic of nations of East Asia and Scandinavia have given to the development of its education system at all levels. By contrast, Spain and most Latin American countries have not yet managed to put human resources at the center of their efforts for economic growth and social transformation. The present economic and financial crisis makes it more difficult to look to the long term investment required in higher education.
In a recent article entitled “let’s go Denmark”, the UK weekly magazine The Economist (2013) analyzed the strength of the political culture in the Scandinavian countries. A strong tradition of negotiated compromises, coupled with the ability to undertake audacious change at the same time, has allowed these nations to evolve smoothly into dynamic knowledge-based economies without eroding their social fabric characterized by a high degree of cohesion and inclusion. In the same vein, being able to undertake reforms consensually designed and accepted as long-term State policies, rather than as the program of a given government driven by short-term electoral considerations, may be the biggest challenge in most Ibero-American countries where there is little tradition of bi-partisan decision-making.