Latin America: National Responses to World Challenges in Higher Education

Simon Schwartzman

Prepared for the Symposium on the new world challenges for higher education, organized by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, Washington, December, 1998.

"Globalization", the buzzword of the third millennium, is nothing new for Latin American universities. The first academic institutions in the region were established in the 16th century by the Catholic Church, the national states created after the independence movements in the early 19th century tried to copy the then modern, technically oriented French educational institutions, and in the last decades the American research universities and graduate schools became the model to follow. Today, however, the old pattern of adoption and copy of foreign models became just a small part of a much broader trend of international integration, which has as one of its consequences a series of features, problems and concerns which affect most higher educational systems in similar ways, while eliciting different and often contradictory responses.

Mass higher education

In Latin America as most anywhere else, mass higher education developed in the sixties and later years not as purposeful projects of governments and university administrators, but as a consequence of large-scale social, economic and cultural changes beyond anyone's control. The concentration of populations in large cities, the entrance of women in the labor markets, the gradual expansion of basic and secondary education, the development of the youth culture, the movements of adults to get new qualifications, certifications and job opportunities, the new skills required by modern industry and services, the expansion of the welfare state and public services, all these elements lead to an enormous demand for higher education, which different countries attended in different ways. For the year of 1990, the gross rate of higher education enrollment had reached 40% in Argentina, 33% in Peru, 30% in Paraguay in Argentina, 26% in Costa Rica, 20% in Cuba. In these countries and in others like Mexico (with an enrollment rate of 14%), the public, national universities opened their doors to almost everybody who could apply, becoming among the largest higher education institutions in the world. In other places, like Brazil, Colombia and Chile, the public and more traditional universities resisted the onslaught, trying to maintain their traditions and areas of competence, and a new tier of higher education institutions developed, mostly as private endeavors, sometimes at the provincial and local levels. Their enrollment rates did not grow as much (11% in Brazil, 14.2% in Colombia, 20.6% in Chile - this figure is also a reflection of the relative size of the urban centers and the new middle classes in each country). Mixed situations occur everywhere. Elite institutions opened courses in more popular subjects for less qualified students, open admission universities created and maintained niches of competence and excellence, and a small, well-endowed group of private institutions emerged to cater to the children of the elites.

Institutional change and differentiation

The need to accommodate an increasingly large number of students in a traditional university setting is just the most obvious aspect of a much deeper problem, which is to adapt traditional institutions to a completely new set of social groups, functions and demands. In spite of the cultural traditions coming from the Iberian peninsula, and the growing economic presence of Britain in Latin America since the years of independence, it is to France that Latin American politicians and intellectuals looked for the institutional models of their new states, including their learning institutions. Many explanations could be given to this fact: Anglo-Saxon culture and traditions were more alien, and their language more remote. More to the point, perhaps, were the revolutionary rhetoric and France's effort to build a modern nation through the strength of the State, an appealing model when civil society was so weak and the economy so poorly developed as it did in Latin America. The new, public higher education institutions were to train the lawyers, engineers, military officers and medical doctors to build the new nations, and the students in these institutions did not expect less from their careers. General education was to be provided in the early ages to the selected few, usually by the Church, and vocational and practical training for the masses were to be done on the jobs, if ever. Higher education was to be the place for the new professions, and the new graduates were to become the intelligentsia of their societies. This explains the long tradition of student politics in Latin America, as well as the universities' usual disregard for scientific scholarship and technical expertise, with the usual and notable exceptions.

Now, this arrangement is challenged from all sides. From the bottom, large numbers of applicants hoping to get the same access to prestigious positions and income as the old elites, but willing to settle for a recognized skill and a valid credential in the labor market. From the top, a new small but vocal generation of foreign trained academics and international advisers claiming for scientific research and advanced technical prowess, without which modernization and economic development could not possibly materialize. And, from everywhere, new ways of doing politics and gaining power, not respecting the status credentials of the old elite; and a competitive market in which traditional academic and family entitlements did not count as in the past.

The old universities had to change, and in fact have been doing so in the last decades, even if erratically most of the time. Countries which kept their public universities protected allowed for a new tier of higher education institutions to develop, copying as they could the established models, but teaching in the evenings, not requiring much in terms of performance, and charging students for what they could pay. Countries which opted for open access to all students got used to enormous rates of student retention and desertion in the first years, and all developed postgraduate programs to select further their elite, and to answer the demands for research and scholarship.

Postgraduate education and research

To preserve and even to enhance the old centers of quality and excellence was probably the easy part, although not without its problems. It is always easier, and much cheaper, to take care of a selected group of students and their teachers than to change large higher education systems as a whole, or to adapt them to an extended and highly differentiated set of new clients.

It is not by chance that what is "graduate" in the US is called "postgraduate" in Latin America and Europe, and what is "graduate" in these regions is called "undergraduate" in the US. Undergraduate, college education as conceived in the US and England was always understood as part of secondary education in the European continent and Latin America. Postgraduate education was never done in specialized institutions, course programs and "graduate schools," which are recognized as an American invention. Brazil is probably the country in Latin America which went further in the introduction of American-style graduate programs in their universities, which were dully re-christened as "postgraduate," and placed in the country's best public institutions.

These programs perform at least three functions. The first is the stated one, that is, to provide a place for education in advanced research and scholarship. There are several, good quality programs of this kind, specially at some of the Federal universities (in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais) and mostly at the public universities supported by the São Paulo state (the Universities of São Paulo and Campinas). They employ most of the active researchers in Brazil in all fields. The second is to provide credentials and further education to academic personnel in public universities, which need them to progress in their careers. In Brazil, as in some other countries, regulations started to require from education academics credentials they did not have, and the countries could not provide in enough quantities. The intention was good, but the consequences were often problematic. In Brazil, graduate education course programs mushroomed by the hundreds since 1970s, most of them providing masters' and "specialization" degrees which were accepted as second best. Still today, only 16% of the academic faculty in Brazil holds a doctoral degree, concentrated in a few places such as the universities of the State of São Paulo, compared with 25% with MAs, 36% with some kind of specialization and 22% with just a graduate (that is, undergraduate) diploma. The third function of the new postgraduate programs is to provide higher skills and enhanced credentials for some students in an enlarged market. For the lawyers, economists, engineers, administrators, medical doctors, and others who go after higher degrees with that purpose in mind, the research requirements of the postgraduate programs are a nuisance, and they often drop out of their courses and forget about their academic commitments when their job situation improves. A final and very important reason to get into postgraduate education is to postpone the entrance in the labor market; in Brazil this has been helped by the existence of a large system of student fellowships for a significant proportion of the postgraduate students.

To control the quality of postgraduate education, the Brazilian Ministry of Education maintains an elaborate and well-reputed system of peer review evaluation of these course programs. Data for the 1996/1997 period show the existence of 1,293 course programs, half of them providing doctoral degrees. In an evaluation scale from one to seven, in which six means high quality, and seven corresponds to international quality standards, 83.1% received between three and five, 9.5% got six or seven, and 7.4% flunked with less than three points.

Undergraduate education

The combination of growing enrollment and the import of the US model of graduate education transformed and downgraded large sections of the existing graduate higher education in Latin America to some kind of undergraduate level. This was seldom done in purpose, although the 1968 university reform in Brazil did create something called "basic courses," to last for one or two years as a preparation for professional degrees, which failed almost everywhere. With the expanding youth culture, most eighteen-year-old students do not know how to choose a profession, but the notion that they could still work in their general skills for some years after secondary school is very alien to the Latin American tradition, even the absence of anything similar to the European standards of good quality, college-like secondary education.

General education is just one of the needs to be provided by undergraduate course programs, the others being vocational training, teacher education and continuous, lifelong education. Eighteen year olds coming straight from acceptable secondary schools and aiming at long-term university courses are a minority among older students, those returning to the universities, those that work, those that need to do it as early as possible, and those who never had the necessary training to enter an academic-level course program. In practice, a large portion of the new demand for higher education was captured by evening, four year courses in fields such as administration, economics, accounting and law, which seldom led to actual professionalization (only a small percentage of the students with law degrees in Brazil actually apply and pass the Bar examinations). These courses provide a credential their graduates can show when hunting for jobs, and at best some basic and general information and skills they can use to find their ways in practical life. A special case is the training of school teachers for basic and secondary education, low prestige and low paying careers which are usually only embraced in the absence of other opportunities.

Modern, mass higher education systems have to be capable to sort out these different groups and their demands, and to provide each with the training necessary and compatible with their skills, aspirations and needs. Very little of that is being done in Latin America, and it is probably impossible to expect that such a vast undertaking could be carried on under the guidance and supervision of central bureaucracies, which are still in place in most countries, trying to steer their higher education systems in some direction.


Most of what governments can do is to manage the limited resources they have in face of mounting costs of higher education, in a context marked by increasing competition for public funds and the stark need to balance public budgets. The grow of public expenditures in higher education, which took place almost everywhere, was not just a consequence of enrollment expansion, but also of the transformation of the old faculties, staffed with lawyers, medical doctors and engineers who earned most of their income from their work as liberal professionals, into new institutions staffed by large numbers of academic and non-academic employees living out of this work. In public universities, these academic and non-academic employees get often the benefits of civil servants, protected from firing, with assured promotion based on seniority, and generous retirement benefits. These high costs, when combined with academic selectivity and inefficiencies in the allocation of resources, can lead to very high figures of per-capita expenditures. In 1990, Brazil spent about nine thousand dollars per year per student in federal institutions, compared with about 1,500 for Chile, Costa Rica, Venezuela, around one thousand for Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Uruguay, and around 500 or less for Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru. These figures are imprecise, since there is no clear definition of a "student" is supposed to be, and the costs may include things like retirement benefits and teaching hospitals. But they are probably more related to the legislation and available benefits to public employees than to the quality of higher education provided by each country.

But public expenditure is just one part the story. The estimation for 1998 is that Brazil is spending about 14 billion dollars a year in higher education, six billion coming from the central government for 350 thousand students in federal universities, five billion from state governments for 250 thousand students in state institutions, and about three billion in tuition paid by about 1.2 million students in private institutions. There is an obvious need for Brazil to increase higher education enrollment to levels similar to other countries in the region and in the world, but it is unlikely that this could be done through much higher public support. It is very unlikely that other Latin American countries would increase their expenditures to anything similar to Brazil's per capita levels in the near future. The possible alternatives are to use public resources more efficiently, bringing in more students with the same money; to increase the share of the private sector in the financing of higher education, charging tuition in public institutions (which is done in countries like Chile and some parts of Argentina, for instance, but is still taboo in Brazil), and to increase the cost of tuition everywhere. Tuition costs may reduce demand somehow, but can create problems of social inequity, which have to be compensated by needs-based fellowships and student loans. The problems of financing higher education in Latin America are not only a matter of limited resources, but, in large part, a question of how to use better what is already there.

Institutional reform

To make better use of money, and to provide the students with what they expect, deep institutional reforms are necessary. Most governments in the region have tried them, encountering always strong resistence, and with different degrees of success. There is a growing consensus on what has to be done. Public money for public universities has to be given according to clear criteria of performance and products delivered, not just according to historical trends or political influence. More broadly, there is the need to move from a system of coordination based on the bureaucratic authority of the state to one based on more competitive markets - not just markets of buyers and sellers of educational products in the private sector, but of providers and users of good quality academic and educational products. In the ideological disputes that surround higher educational reform, this plead for more market, instead of bureaucratic regulation, is often taunted as "privatization," but does not have to be so. The public sector can and will probably remain a key supplier of funds for higher education; it is its way of acting which will have to change, from bureaucratic management to the creation of competition mechanisms for quality and performance among institutions.

The third corner of Burton Clark's well known "coordination triangle" besides government and market, namely oligarchy, has also a role to play in the new context. The cosy arrangements, by which prestigious professors and academicians used to make most of the decisions related to their work without further explanations, cannot be maintained when the systems get so complex and differentiated, with so many conflicting goals and interests. Diffuse notions of prestige, competence and quality have to be replaced, or at least bounded by more precise information stemming from well-conceived tests, performance measures and statistical analysis. Still, academic and professional authority will always be needed. Evaluation and accreditation committees are being established everywhere, creating rankings, allocating resources, evaluating new and existing course programs. Prestigious scholars and professors are the only ones who have the legitimacy to establish the rules of the new "academic markets," and work as counterweights to the bureaucratic and centralizing tendencies of governments.

Institutional reform at the coordination level has to be followed by changes in institutions. The decisions to be made by university administrators in this new context of intense competition, complex tasks and scarce resources, are very different and much more difficult than those of the past, when the only things to be decided where who should teach what in each semester, and who would participate in different types of academic commissions. Most public higher education institutions in Latin America, however, still work as in the old days, with decisions taken through lengthy collegial meetings, and no help from professional managers and staff. The new context requires more power and authority at the central administration, external supervision, and the ability to make difficult decisions regarding personnel, course programs and enrollment policies. There is still a long way to go in this direction, specially in public institutions, given the need to change rules related to the civil service, and also to change the relative power of different groups within the institutions.

The new challenges

The issues outlined above, regarding mass higher education, postgraduate and undergraduate education, financing and institutional reform, have been in the agenda of higher education in Latin America for many years, and are far from being resolved in most places. The main reason for this slow pace is the high political costs of reform. Students, academics and administrators do not know much about the complexities of change in higher education, and have often good reasons to mistrust their governments. Besides, they feel they can be affected by policies leading to closer evaluation of what a lecturer does in class, whether the student is really learning, or whether the money is being spent as wisely as it should. There are many sectors in society who would like these changes - employers hoping for better qualified employees, families looking for good schools for their children, less privileged persons looking for more suitable learning opportunities, governments in need to spend less, or to spend better their resources. But these potential supporters of change are scattered, while the stakeholders within the higher education institutions are organized, able to demonstrate against the government, and with easy access to the press. No wonder that some of the deepest transformations in higher education in some Latin American countries were done by authoritarian regimes. But higher education institutions, to thrive, require personal involvement and legitimacy, characteristics of free and democratic societies. In Chile and Brazil, the democratic regimes tried to build on what was left by the military governments in terms of effective institutional improvements, getting rid, at the same time, from the authoritarian components of the previous years.

Reform, therefore, is likely to be slow and erratic. There are new challenges, however, that can increase the pace of change. The most important is probably that Latin American universities are gradually losing their monopoly in granting diplomas and professional credentials. In Uruguay, until recently, there was just one university, and the idea that private institutions could compete with it was inconceivable. Today, other institutions are emerging, and the Universidad de la República is feeling the pressure of competition. In Argentina and Mexico, provincial universities were slow to appear, and were always looked upon with mistrust by the large national universities in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Even in Brazil, with a large private sector and strong Catholic universities, there is still widespread mistrust regarding the private sector, and the government holds the right to decide who can and cannot teach, what is to be taught (although in very general terms), and whether specific course programs meet the standards defined by the ministerial authorities. This supervisory power is justified by the need to control the quality of teaching and protect the students and the public, but has also the side effect of restricting the competition in the more regulated sectors of the job market, and of stifling creativity and innovation.

What remains of this monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic power seems to be eroding very rapidly. The job market is reducing its reliance in educational credentials, and requiring more competence and skills, which can be provided not only by formal education institutions and formal course programs, but also by a host of new entrepreneurs, who are discovering the new possibilities of the "educational industry." Educational institutions in England, United States and other countries are starting to establish alliances, partnerships and franchises different parts of the world, including Latin America. Distance learning is still on its infancy, but is potentially able to make havoc with national and regional barriers. International mobility of students, mostly limited, until recently, to postgraduates, is becoming an accessible alternative for undergraduates of higher income, given the reduced costs of travel and the increasing costs of domestic private education.

In this scenario, institutions which rely only on a steady flux of public money, uncomplaining students and a monopolistic hold in the education market, are bound to disappear or to deteriorate, losing their best professionals, academics and teaching conditions. Latin American higher education institutions are finally becoming aware of this new situation and are starting to adjust to it, not waiting, necessarily for broader systems changes to start. Because of this, there are good reasons for hope.

Bibliographical note:

For an overview of Latin American higher education and its policy agenda, see José Joaquin Brunner, coordinator, and Jorge Balán, Hernán Courard, Christian Cox, Eunice Durham, Ana Maria Fanelli, Rollin Kent, Lúcia Klein, Ricardo Lucio, Helena Sampaio, Mariana Serrano and Simon Schwartzman, Educación Superior en América Latina: una agenda para el año 2000, Proyecto de Políticas Comparadas de Educación Superior, Bogotá, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1995; see also the special issue of Higher Education, 25, 1, 1993, dedicated to Latin America and edited by José Joaquin Brunner and Simon Schwartzman; and Simon Schwartzman, América Latina: Universidades en Transición, Washington, D. C., Organization of American States, 1996. <