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Periódico UNAL
Higher education and the pandemic: the risk of shortsightedness.

In the last ten years, Latin-American universities have been the main character of a convulsive situation. Besides the economic crisis, the region has undergone a radical transformation in terms of democratic regimes, governed by rightist administrations that are deepening the already difficult situation of thousands of people, especially young adults.

Despite the poverty conditions of the region–more than 200 million people, or 25% in extreme poverty condition–during the last decade there was an important growth in gross higher education schooling rates: over 22 million students in 4,200 universities and higher education institutions (48.2 % in the private sector), which translates into a coverage between 25 and 40%, as opposed to a 70% average in more developed countries.

Listen: Contributions of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to face the coronavirus.

Comparing, knowledge progress is unequal as it is focused in just a few countries and hardly dynamic, especially due to three elements: low investment in higher education (between 0.5 and 1%); concentration of doctorate programs in essentially three countries: Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico; and the loss of talented brains to foreign countries: while more than 122,806 Latin-American post-graduate students are enrolled in universities in the United States or Europe, Latin American only has 33,546 post-graduate students.

For the “Research and Development” segment, 60.8% is provided by the government and is carried out in a handful of universities or with other researchers, most are also harbored in the aforementioned three countries: 138,653 in Brazil, 51,685 in Argentina, and 43.592 in Mexico.

According to a 2015 report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), this has a negative impact on the social advancement possibilities, occupational movement, and the relation of jobs for middle, middle-secondary, and higher education graduates, due to the socioeconomic disparities reproduced by the educational system. 

To this not so optimistic scenario we need to add the COVID-19 pandemic, which now surpasses 3 million cases around the world–more than 180,000 in Latin America–, compelling governments to take drastic measures such as closing down emblematic university campuses and continue with  distance learning dynamic.

Read more: COVID-19 and health: mutate to live.

Deep transformation

According to a recent report known as ““COVID-19 and higher education: the immediate effects of the day after. Impact analysis, political answers and suggestions” of the International Institute of Research on Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) of Unesco, the temporary closure impacts close to 23.4 million higher education students and 1.4 million professors, representing more than 98% of the higher education student and professor population of the region.

It also alerts for people that do not have the quality conditions or continuity in their studies and that could be a sector that sees their aspirations for schooling worthless and defect or begin to lag as distance learning requires good connectivity; besides generalized use of cell phones is still limited.

This impacts the most impoverished, rural, and indigenous populations or living in urban or semi-urban precariousness situations.

The document also shows that student access to required technologies and platforms for distance learning (76 %) and the real capacity of institutions in technological and educational terms, offering quality online educations (75 %), leaves 25% of students and institutions stranded.

For IESALC, the scenario left by this healthcare and educational crisis will deeply affect higher education institutions, as it will take preparation to return to classes amid an economic crisis and recession and public investment budget cuts, and at the same time, it will require preparing inclusive education equality and non-discrimination initiatives.

Read more: How to carry out science in times of Big Data, e-learning, and startups (in Spanish.)

Opportunity to rebuild the educational model

Taking the prior into consideration, what should be in the perspective of the main university actors should be:

  1. That knowledge has now changed significantly: how it is produced, what is it worth, its pertinence... however, it is one of the realities that must be rebuilt from new realities. Currently, science is overwhelmed by the market, and technological developments are offered to the extent they can produce a profit, but not to solve the problems of the majority of the impoverished. In Mexico, the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) (National Science and Technology Council) is redirecting the technological-scientific apparatus in a “strategy of scientific sovereignty” so the benefitted of technological developments are the communities that live in less favorable conditions.
  2. Public management of the university system should go beyond bureaucracy and focus on designing strategies that allow articulating and coordinating new social learning models that include platforms of cognitive learning and tasks for building improving knowledge transferal with greater flexibility and indefinite time.
  3. Education and technology (distance learning as technocratic outputs). In Mexico, the Office of the Public Health Secretary and the universities decided to go for distance and TV learning, to online assessments, closing schools, and maintain a semi-fixed school cycle. This seems to fall into the idea that just a little while ago, the authorities were thinking of an eventual educational reform to improve equality; promoting innovation and boosting new public policy management. This could be a suitable opportunity to start building a “new Mexican school.”

Definitely, a radical educational transformation, even in times of the pandemic goes beyond defining policies to warrant accessibility and gratuitousness for a frontal battle against inequality.

This is the ideal moment for governments to engineer progressive policies that brake and innovate the traditional educational models in curriculums, research and teaching, with multiple social learning platforms, and novel intercultural knowledge management structures.

Read more:

“COVID-19 y educación superior: de los efectos inmediatos al día después. Análisis de impactos, respuestas políticas y recomendaciones”, del Instituto Internacional para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe (IESALC). COVID-19 and higher education: the immediate effects of the day after. Impact analysis, political answers and suggestions,” of the International Institute of Research on Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC)



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