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The university in Latin America and the Caribbean: One step forward, one step back*

Since the sequence of the shortwave crisis which led to decades of setbacks in the region due to the reduction of the responsibility of the government in face to the unequal problems of general and higher education, the proliferation of market mechanisms to regulate academic organization, and the reproduction of knowledge gaps, learning and modern science and technology development of the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century, may be verified that public universities and higher education institutions (HEI) in general faced change trends such:

  • Durante the 80s and 90s, the reforms in higher education had state deregulation as the main axis, institutional decentralization and fragmentation of the types of quality of the institutions, especially for the growth the of private and mercantile offer and for the economic approaches to demand.
  • There were new internationalization schemes influenced by the Bologna agreements (the Tuning project, for instance) which had a low impact, along with the expansion and influence of “transnational providers”, of online academic programs and new diversified financing schemes.
  • Institutional changes were supported and in academic management to favor knowledge production segments and niches and research directed to the market. However, they progressed slowly in the implementation of substantial reforms in research and post-graduate programs.
  • Achieving greater demand than the educational offer, saturating public universities while the technical superior institutes offer grew. This occurred without breaching the inequality gaps, schooling unschooling, desertion, abandonment, and marginalization of traditionally excluded sectors.
  • Reforms, administrative and governmental decisions were boosted; creating new careers and areas of knowledge, besides research and development centers; publications were also advanced and the number of postgraduate programs grew as well as some “good practices”.
  • Changes in strong national content expressed in debates over national laws in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Chile, o with initiative to advance in subregional integration such as the Central American University Council CSUCA); the Association of Universities and Research Institutions of the Caribbean (UNICA); the Grupo Montevideo Association of Universities (AUGM), in southern cone; Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - Peoples’ Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), and more recently the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

No substantial changes

According to a 2016 report of the Inter-University Development Center (CINDA, for its Spanish acronym) the region has maintained the inequality levels in access to secondary and higher education, without profound modifications:

“On average in 2010, only 21.7% of the youngsters between 20 and 24 years of age belonged to the most impoverished quintile of their respective countries that had finished secondary education […] as opposed to 78.3% of their peers of the richest quintile which completed this level of education, in other words, a 56.6 point gap, signifying that in this decade there was practically no progress in the region in this regard, as in the year 2000, the same gap was 57.3%. At a higher level, the reality is even more pressing as in 2013 the population with the educational level reached 46% of the richest quintile, while the most impoverished quintile was only 4 %.”

Other indicators mentioned in the report show the slow progress of higher education in the region in the lowest in scientific production in use and handling of new technologies; production of research-development and innovation; adult education; the importance of this level in governmental policies or on the increased private education offer.

From the previous perspectives, the development conditions of the knowledge productive sector, new learning, and offer of new institutional profiles up to the end of the last century were constrained and in many cases appeared as secondary or marginalized, with lags such as:

  • The scarce legitimacy of the scientific product where scientific knowledge is not valued or totally supported.
  • A reduced social learning platform which makes capacity, skill, competences, and production related value development and knowledge transference to no bet promoted or planned and the gap of its support has deep differences with respect to other regions of the planet.
  • Little interest of the productive sector to develop science and technology endogenous capacity due to the control of major exports focused on natural resources and relatively small semi-manufactured and highly protected products, with private and public investments lacking stimulus or the need to innovate; even after the trade aperture, the production of R&D programs still depends on the developed countries. This lack of coordination, which is not expressed in national innovation systems, is expressed as one of the most important obstacles to reach development of a knowledge production sector.
  • The permanent outflow of competent people draining local effort and submitting physical and human resources to develop knowledge in other countries, but not for them to have a “reverse return” logic and adequate transference to the organization of a positive cooperation relationship towards overcoming existing unbalances, gaps and asymmetries.

The criticism of the “reproductionist” model was supported by maintaining an obsolete curriculum, a repetitive and superfluous teaching or the idea that the state did not have to guarantee all the funds for public universities but had to diversify the private offer, investment in new communication technologies and information, which would redefine teaching processes and traditional organization, searching a kind of “modernity” boosted by the assessment and accreditation of institutions or programs or be a reference to local or international rankings.

For universities and higher education institutions of the region, these movements diversified and fragmented the dominating model of traditional professionalizing “Napoleonic” universities. Their challenge was even greater when, as mentioned before, look for paths towards modernization by way of accreditation agencies and assessment councils.

Although the Chilean case appears constantly en the analysis of organizational, currently –especially by a sort of “cover-up” of the difference between private and public– in other countries the structural changes have begun to be notorious since the debate over “differentiation” of the university systems.

However, in the countries, which did not prioritize changes in universities, scientific innovation centers or for technology development, is where the interest of the government was other or society did not demand it; where the local authorities were not aware of the real, prolonged and systematic effort to implement a model sustained in production and transference of knowledge, they could configure an inertia where the hard work of academics or institutions appeared which provided importance to destine funds to research projects or, oftentimes, as part of the tenacity of groups or individuals with greater vision and height.

When the government does not have or is interested have a structured or innovative vision to back, experiment or promote an alternative education, science and technology model, what occurs is “they ley do and look the other way”, which favors marketing and privatization of schools and universities.

In the conditions of an underdeveloped country, where education and science is “marginal” to the social and economic life, where unemployment or talent flight prevails, there is low investment in research and with time, quality of higher education is maintained only for the elite, it is difficult to reach new justice and equity development.

Therefore, during this century, the social response was expressed through an emerging declaration of several actors which manifested in favor of a great transformation of the public and private universities.

This occurred in the massive demands of the Chilean student movement (2011-2014), in Puerto Rico (2011-2012), in Colombia  (2011) in Mexico (2011-2012), which had to change in the manner in how demands were implemented in this sector regarding regulation and policies, or the dominating trend of the academic world of the traditional agenda of debate over the public and private, with demonstrations which have transcended  from the institutional scope to the political at the national and subregional level. 

In Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela or Uruguay, and inclusively in Central America and the Caribbean, the discussion over the new agenda for the whole higher education has a newfound interest in the university communities and other sectors of society and national politic life.

Ecuador, for instance, approved the Organic Law for Higher Education under great university mobilization, which redefined the public policy towards higher education in that country. Brazil has also tested and implemented programs for minorities and sectors of traditional marginality and its important progress in postgraduate programs and scientific research.

There are also opposing paths in Chile and Argentina, which refer to differentiated cases in the treatment of the meaning of public assets and the responsibility of the state in face of the public and private interest. There are some other cases in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Costa Rica.

The balance of a whole era is that in the region maintains a varied but unstructured system, diverse but not complementary, autonomous but not cooperative, increasingly complex but not due to this more active and acting in the development of a society of sustainable knowledge and welfare for all.

With these fractured and unequal trends and changes, the traditional idea of a public hegemonic university, with emphasis in its “professionalizing” type responsibility, with the idea that its main task consists of broadening and guaranteeing the amplest access to this educational level and with the reference of management and organization schemes based on shared government, institutional autonomy, government subsidies and prevalence of a liberal and disciplinarian type study plan, they began to steer away from the predominant “model” of the region.

And, ¡however it moves! because a couple of decades ago the era of emerging university institutions began, the creation of very important university campuses and sub-campuses, and the beginning of so many “new” others with innovative or entrepreneurial types, but also a growing wave of privatization and commercialization.

Among these experiences and reforms there are outlines of academic innovation, concepts, policies and programs which allow verifying a new wave of changes in higher education in the region, which will be sustained in the debate over what is call the new transformation agenda, very related to the Declaration of Cartagena de 2008 in the perspective of participation of universities in the context of what occurs which the character and orientation of its governments.

* The complete and original version of this article may be found at “La Nueva Agenda de Transformación de la Educación Superior en América Latina”. Revista Perfiles Educativos, Tercera Época, Vol. XXXIV, No. 138, UNAM, México, 2012.


Consejo Editorial