Higher Education in a Lost Decade
Published in, Prospects. (Paris, UNESCO),
Vol. XXI, N 3, 1991, p. 363-373. Republished in Zaghloul Morsy and Philio
G. Altbach, eds, Higher Education in International Perspective: Towards
the 21st Century (New York, Advent, 1993), 119-129.
The beginning: centralization
Into the 20th century: modernization and autonomy
Expansion and repression
Conclusion: why policy proposals fail
Latin America: Higher Education in a Lost Decade
The beginning: centralization
Latin American higher education, as it exists today, was organized in the
period of Independence, in the early 19th century, grew slowly for about
150 years, went through a period of explosive growth in the 1960's and 1970's,
and leveled off again in the 1980's. Before independence, where they existed,
higher education institutions were run by the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reform,
as part of the Spanish colonizing enterprise. The struggle for political
independence was colored by the ideals of secularism, the appreciation for
technical knowledge, and a general attack on the traditional university
Throughout, the rhetoric was about tradition and the century, scholastic
and practical knowledge, general and professional education, the colonial
tradition and the building of modern nation-states. Universities were a
natural place for these confrontations to take place. Conservative and liberals,
catholics and positivists fought each other through the next century, creating
new institutions, closing down Catholic universities, opening them up again,
supporting them with public money or cutting out their life lines. In Mexico
the Catholic universities disappeared, in Chile the two coexisted, in Brazil
the Catholic institutions appeared only in the 1940's, and Argentina still
Political independence did not mean much in terms of social and economic
transformations. Latin American enlightened elites spoke French, traveled
to Europe and handled French concepts, including their democratic and rationalist
ideals; still, their societies remained restricted to the limits of their
economies, based on a few export products, large pockets of traditional
or decadent settlements, one or two major administrative and export centers,
and, in Brazil, a slavery system that lasted almost to the end of the 19th
Century. There were not many jobs requiring specialized knowledge and skills,
except for handling the tangled legal systems inherited from the Iberic
baroque legislation, for military work and health care. Law, military engineering
and medicine were main fields of study, none of them demanding enough to
put special premium on innovation and achievement.
To the prevalence of rhetoric, feeble intellectual and technical competence
and reduced social impact, one should add a third feature, centralization
and bureaucratic control. Three explanations are possible. There was a matter
of symmetry, new states organizing their educational institutions against
the centralizing traditions of the past; then, most of the education business
dealt with bestowing honors, titles and privileges, rather than with knowledge
as such, and these formal goods can only exist if they are regulated from
above; finally, and more generally, the whole colonial enterprise, both
in Portuguese and Spanish America, was carried on through centralized authority
and control, and the local elites did not know otherwise.
Into the 20th century: modernization
Argentina, and particularly the Buenos Aires region, was the scene of massive
European immigration at the turn of the century, only comparable with the
United States; the second pole of attraction for immigrants in the region
was the state of São Paulo, Brazil. European migration meant the beginnings
of a modern middle class in Latin American cities, with all its social and
economic attachments - a growing service sector, small industries, professionalization
and, of course, education.
It would be interesting to see how the institutions of higher education
in São Paulo and Buenos Aires responded to this new condition. Perhaps the
main difference was that, in Argentina, economic growth and modernization
occurred under a very conservative and centralizing political regime, while
in Brazil it coincided with political decentralization and local autonomy,
which benefitted the local interests in the São Paulo region. The Argentine
"generation of the 80's, responsible for the country's rapid modernization
at the turn of the century, "puts in place a policy of rationalization of
the economy without overcoming the traditional basis of production, and
of secularization of many institutions, without touching the sphere of political
power."(1) Education is usually not mentioned
in the literature dealing with the period. Jorge Balán, however, notes that
"for six decades, between 1882 and 1947, the Argentine university system
expanded from basically the same framework, established by the legislation
of that year". The main feature, which was further consolidated in the forties,
was the notion of a national university system, based on a central university(2).
In contrast, there were no universities in Brazil at the time, and the social
and economic modernization of São Paulo led to the creation of many professional
schools and research institutes, which became the backbone of the better
part of Brazil's contemporary higher education institutions.
The early 20th century were the years of university autonomy. The landmark
was the student rebellion University of Cordoba, Argentina, in 1918, which
led to the establishment of joint academic governance by faculty, students
and alumni. The Cordoba movement, the "Reforma", soon spread its word throughout
the continent, leading to the adoption of similar governance rules in national
universities in most countries.
The Reforma movement was incendiary in its rhetoric against the university
establishment, but conservative in its accomplishments. Where it succeeded,
the universities became less subject to daily interferences from central
governments, but did not incorporate new social groups nor improve the quality
of teaching. Self-governance meant that decisions had to be taken by vote,
and no place could exist for institutional leadership. It is probably not
a coincidence that the Reforma started in Córdoba, a province in Argentina
which was declining in face of the intense economic and political growth
of Buenos Aires. Even where economic development did not occur, cities were
growing, populations increased, and traditional power arrangements were
difficult to maintain. The Latin American reformed universities became the
place where the children of the traditional elites expressed their frustrations
against the decadence of their elders, and their hopes for replacing them
with more competence, within societies that remained virtually unchanged.
For the following several decades LA higher education institutions slowly
swelled its ranks and begun to differentiate. Their size was given by the
number of people graduating from the secondary schools, and sometimes by
numerus clausus. As the student ranks swelled, political militancy
intensified, and in many places the old legal rhetoric gave ground to Marxism.
For many, university life became mere a springboard for political action,
and in many places the campi were transformed into barricades, protected
by the principles of university autonomy. Meanwhile, differentiation occurred
both within the established institutions and outside.
First, professions started to be important. For a growing number of students
children of immigrants, raising up from the middle classes, growing up in
urban centers to go into a university meant to learn a skill, to get a diploma
and to live off one's professional income. Schools and faculties of medicine,
engineering and pharmacy started to increase and improve their technical
levels, while political militancy tended to restrict itself to the law schools.
Second, new institutions emerged. At the top, private, often religious elite
schools, for the children of the old elites; at the bottom, schools for
the aspiring lower middle class, in fields like accounting, teaching and
trade, sometimes public, usually private, always fighting for recognition
for their university status.
There had never been places in these universities and schools for full-time
work and scientific research, as it is often taken for granted in other
countries and places. Research, where it existed, took place in health departments
and government laboratories. At the end of this period, however, the voice
of would-be scientists was added to that of the students in the denunciation
of the traditional universities and the political regimes associated with
Expansion and repression
From the sixties on the Latin American universities went through a period
without precedent of expansion and political repression.
Expansion was due to irresistible and pervasive sociological trends. Secondary
education has been gradually expanding, and other routes besides the classic
curriculum, were opened, and there were just more people looking for tertiary
education. Middle-class women, who usually left school to marry before the
twenties, postponed marriage, went to work and continued to study. Evening
courses opened everywhere for working lower-middle class sectors, which
flocked to the university benches in search of educational upgrading. Rates
of growth of higher education in many countries reached 30%. Some countries
kept open the gates of their public institutions, leading to mega-universities
like Mexico or Buenos Aires. Others, like Brazil and Colombia, restricted
access to the public sector, and allowed for the proliferation of private,
evening schools, mostly in the fields of social sciences.
Political repression against the universities came from the confrontation
of student, and sometimes teacher activism, and the military regimes that
emerged more or less at that time in several Latin American countries: Argentina
after 1966, Brazil in the beginning in 1964, but intensifying in 1969, Chile
in 1973 - not forgetting the massacre of students in Mexico City of 1968.
For the military, at the beginning, the problems of higher education were
a matter of police and discipline. With different emphasis in one place
or another, elected rectors were replaced by colonels, teachers were fired,
students arrested, the social sciences were banned, mandatory civic education
was introduced. Large sectors of the universities were destroyed and demoralized,
while hundreds of students went into guerrilla warfare.
The cycles of expansion, repression and insurrection came more or less together
to their end in the late seventies and early eighties. Now it was the time
to pick up the pieces, to see what remained of higher education from the
past years, and what could be done about it. By then political mobilization
of students had lost its virulence, to be replaced by the unionization of
teachers and employees. In most public institutions the traditional part-time
professor had been replaced by a new professional, the full time teacher
(who had been very often the militant student of ten years earlier) and
sometimes by the academically oriented researcher, educated abroad and expecting
his institution to become like the research university where he got his
degree. Most military regimes had by then disappeared, but a new scourge
was already looming: economic stagnation. This is the background for the
current attempts at university reform.
The basic feature of the structure of Latin American universities, from
the practitioner's point of view, is that they are rigid, change very slowly,
and cannot be easily altered by the center. This is true of universities
everywhere, but some particular traits in Latin America are worth pointing
Latin American universities are said to be Napoleonic, which means to be
controlled and strictly supervised by the central government according to
uniform, nationwide standards. In fact, Napoleonic centralization is negotiated
all the time by different corporatist arrangements in the academic institutions.
A dominant feature of most universities in the region is the weight of its
professional schools, in law, medicine, engineering, dentistry and a few
others. In other societies, these units are often placed outside the main
universities, or at least organized independently from the institutions'
academic and administrative core, usually more concerned with general education,
the humanities and the sciences. Latin American higher education, from its
beginning, was defined almost as a synonym of education for the professions.
The centrality of these units has led both to the preservation of some quality
(since some of them have good traditions of competent work) and to resistance
to innovations that have come from other groups entering the universities
and from governments and administrations trying to promote change.
Pressures for change have come from three new collective actors which arrived
in the years of expansion, the late sixties and seventies. The first were
the young and well trained scholars who got their education abroad, often
with fellowships given by Ford Foundation or other sources, who helped to
discredit the old organizational models and pressed for the establishment
of research institutes, departments, research money and full-time work.
In some countries they were partially absorbed by the professional schools,
or in specially created institutes and research centers; in others they
were repealed, and went on to organize their own institutions, with local
or international money.
The second collective actor was formed by the large number of women, elder,
and poorer persons who started to flood universities that until recently
have been mostly all-male, elite institutions for the privileged young.
In some countries, like in Argentina and Mexico, the public universities
opened their gates to the newcomers, and turned into some of the largest
educational institutions in the world. In others, like in Brazil or Colombia,
the gates of public universities did not open very much, and the expanding
demand for education was attended mostly by the private sector.
The third actor was a professional group that barely existed twenty years
ago, the university teacher. In most countries, the massification of higher
education led to the hiring of a large number of instructors who were different
both from the traditional professor (who got his earnings from private practice)
and the researcher (who could raise money from research agencies and research
contracts). The university teacher in Latin American universities organized
very quickly in strong professional unions, took the torch of political
militancy from the students of ten years ago (if they were not the same
persons!) and put forward an agenda of employment protection, egalitarian
treatment and public financing that blocked most attempts at evaluation,
differentiation and administrative rationalization that emerged from time
to time. A parallel development was the creation of large administrative
bureaucracies in universities, with their own unions and political agendas.
One could discuss governance at two levels, for the institutions and for
national systems. The establishment of stronger central administrations
was a trend in all universities which tried to move away from the dominance
of the traditional schools and to deal positively with the new coming actors.
Ideally, modernizing administrations should evolve from the reliance on
professional schools to the reliance on academic communities, which are
the mainstays of modern research universities, and responsible for the "bottom-heaviness"
which should be, in Burton Clark's expression, the main feature of academic
organizations. The problem for Latin American universities, however, was
the weakness of their country's academic communities, and the strength of
other sectors. As the administrations freed themselves from the professional
oligarchies, they often fell prey to the students', teachers' and employees'
unions. In many Latin American universities now the administrative authorities
are elected by these groups, sometimes by a one-man-one-vote method, making
the administrative seats thoroughly political positions.
This predicament is compounded by ingrained traditions of collective rule.
The Cordoba Reform movement of 1918 established the principle of tri-partite
government students, professors and alumni which in many institutions replaced
the traditional professional congregations, and have recently been replaced,
again, by assemblies of professors, students and employees. The problem
with these collective bodies is not so much their composition, but that
they go well beyond what one would expect from legislative bodies. They
control the acts of the administration in their minimum details, and often
at all levels departments, courses, institutes, schools, universities. This
means that universities' administrators not only have to play politics to
be appointed, but have also to play politics to have their acts approved
and implemented on a daily basis, making everything slow and complicated.
Governance in private institutions goes often to the other extreme. Central
administrators are appointed by the owners (or, in Catholic Universities,
by the Church), and usually lack collective bodies to temper and compensate
for the top-heaviness that prevail. Sometimes this is a blessing, giving
the institutions much more freedom do innovate and to respond to changing
conditions and demand of the education market. But, in many countries like
Brazil and Colombia private institutions cater to the poorer and less demanding
social segments, and their freedom of action usually leads to poor products
No wonder that governance in Latin American academic institutions is so
often paralyzed, or unable to put forward policies that go against one actor
or another. But the very existence of a plurality of interests and groups
opens the space for institutional leadership. In some places more than others,
it is possible to find researchers unhappy with their working conditions,
students pressing for better education, professionals concerned with their
standards, external sources willing to bring support to new projects and
initiatives. The art of governance in Latin American universities, as in
any institution, is very much the art of finding and keeping good allies.
It is also the art of association. Networking of Universities is a new and
growing phenomenon everywhere, from National Councils of Rectors to continental
initiatives like the Interamerican University Organization. Networks move
slowly, but they can give leverage for local initiatives, and become important
channels for information and mutual support.
In the public sector, ministers of education can distribute money to the
universities, in times of abundance, but can hardly ask them to trim their
costs in times of scarcity. Professors` and employee`s salaries are usually
negotiated directly with the unions, and universities are usually not free
to establish their own budgets and pay scales. Large investments are exceptional
decisions, made by central authorities sometimes with the support of international
agencies(3). This pattern leaves most of
the universities' budgets outside the control of their administration, which
can only deal with minor, current expenses.
This traditional pattern of rigidity can be circumvented in many ways, and
Brazilian institutions have a large experience of doing so. It is possible
to diversity the sources of income. Research money can be obtained from
research supporting agencies and through research contracts; university
real state can be sold or rented, and the income invested in financial markets;
tuition cannot by charged for regular courses in most public universities,
but can exist for extension work. Different arrangements can be made to
receive and administer this money. Non-profit, private corporations have
been organized by universities and units within universities to make contracts,
receive and invest money, hire staff and pay additional salaries to professors.
Arrangements of this kind can lead to questionable practices, if not properly
controlled, but can also provide space for initiatives and creativity that
would be routinely stifled by conventional procedures.
Financial and administrative flexibility can also be introduced in more
conventional ways in public universities. The three universities of the
state system in São Paulo, Brazil, work now with a fixed percentage of the
state tax revenues, and have great flexibility and autonomy in deciding
their use. The Universidade de São Paulo has also granted autonomy to its
units and research centers to run their own budgets and revenues with independence,
keeping control only of the adherence to the general principles of proper
bookkeeping. The example of São Paulo suggests that the rigidity in the
administration of resources in many Brazilian public universities and probably
also elsewhere is often a matter of bureaucratic and administrative conservatism
and lack of imagination, more than actual legal limitations.
There is a long tradition in Latin America against giving public money to
private institutions, and this was actually forbidden by the 1988 Brazilian
constitution. There are, however, loopholes, and there is a large system
of student credit provided by public corporations that pays tuition for
students in the private sector and amount to a significant subsidy, given
the low interest rates and the high number of forfeits.
Tuition in most public universities in Latin America is tabu. In Chile,
however, once this tabu was broken, there was no question of going back
to free education for all. In Brazil, the selectiveness of public universities
makes the charge of tuition a matter of social justice. Still, there is
no hope of making Latin American universities self supporting. There is
so much one could charge for tuition, there is no philanthropic money that
could compensate for the lack of public subsidies, and there are no examples
in the world of universities systems that can function only with the support
of students, or with revenues of its research activities and services.
Attempts at University reform did not have to wait for civilian rule. Brazil
changed its legislation for higher education in 1968, ending with the traditional
chair system and opening the way for graduate education, the strengthening
of academic departments and the creation of research institutes. Colombia
followed similar lines. Chile introduced a very ambitious project of regulating
higher education through market mechanisms and institutional differentiation
in 1981. In Argentina the military stimulated the creation of new universities
in the provinces, the expansion of non-university tertiary education and
the beginning of a private sector. University autonomy returned with civilian
rule in 1984, and the universities went through a "normalization" period
aimed at returning to the institutional framework of 1966, which included
a policy open admissions. Mexico began differentiating after 1968, both
trough provincial institutions and a growing private sector.
The repertoire of reform measures attempted in the last several years is
not very large. It is useful to think of them in terms of the typology proposed
by Burton Clark for the three main poles of coordination and control in
higher education systems, namely the State, the academic oligarchies and
the market. One could think of the changes in the last several years as
attempts to move the weight of authority among these poles, and it is possible
to evaluate the policies and their outcomes in terms of these attempts.
Latin American higher education institutions have been from the beginning
organized by the state, along the Napoleonic tradition, and their history
until the last decades has been a constant fight with internal oligarchies
for political control. What "state" means has varied in time and space.
It can mean the ministry of education, the treasury department, the civil
service administration, the military, or even the Congress, while establishing
legislation and approving the national budget. The problem with state control
is its inability to fine tune its policies. Governments can pass legislation,
send troops and cut or grant budgets, but cannot make institutions organized
around skills and personal commitment to perform under command.
The term "oligarchy" does not need to have a derogatory meaning. Good universities
have been always ruled from inside, and it is not by chance that the issue
of academic and administrative autonomy commands so much attention in this
field. What academic oligarchies we are talking about, however, can make
a great difference. In the past, LA higher education institutions were ruled
by life-appointed chair holders, the "catedráticos", very often notable
men in the liberal professions. They who controlled not just their chairs,
but also their institutions' academic senates and congregations. Now there
are scientists organized around their societies, unionized teachers, unionized
employees, liberal professionals and their associations in the schools of
medicine, law and engineering, religious congregations running the Catholic
universities, the lobby of education entrepreneurs in the non-religious
private sector, and even some remnants of the old student movement. "University
autonomy" can mean any combination of these groups - in the last several
years in Brazil it has meant the election of academic authorities by the
equal vote of professors, students and employees (one third each), and it
is difficult to imagine which kind of policy could come out of this arrangement.
The flaws of the State and the stalemates of academic oligarchy have led
to the search for the third alternative of coordination, the market, with
its compelling logic of cost reduction and the stimulation or entrepreneurship.
As our table suggests, however, market driven educational institutions are
not likely to embark in long-term projects of social relevance and quality.
There are no examples of countries with good quality higher education institutions
based solely or dominantly on market domination, and it is difficult to
imagine that they could exist. In fact, "market competition" can mean different
things in higher education, from competition for student fees to competition
for academic excellence. The prestigious research universities in the United
States, with their disputes for endowments of philanthropic money and talented
professors, are at one extreme; there is a host of institutions working
at the other end, however, selling low-quality education for bargain prices,
and there are no mechanisms linking one extreme with the other.
Conclusion: why policy proposals
A simple inspection of our table shows the answer to this question. It is
very easy to go wrong. Policy proposals fail because they try to shift the
coordination and control of higher education systems to one of the three
poles, with the exclusion of the others; or because they may favor "wrong"
sector within each pole (say, the military, the more tradicional professional
associations or the tuition market for low quality education). Even if well
chosen, none of these poles, in isolation, can carry on a coherent agenda
of educational reform, because of the opposition from the others.
This conclusion is not very surprising, but I believe it is important. Higher
education systems require the presence of checks and balances among government,
oligarchies and markets to function properly. Markets can establish healthy
competition and patterns of cost-effectiveness and identify demand; governments
can establish long-term goals, grant support and define the relative power
of interest groups and oligarchies; and these groups, under appropriate
conditions, are the only ones who really can know what higher education
institutions are about, and what they can do. Policies that take this complex
really into account may stand a chance to succeed.
1. Ezequiel Gallo and Silvia Sigall, "La Formación de
los Partidos Políticos Contemporáneos", in T. D. Tella and others, Argentina,
Sociedad de Masas, Buenos Aires, Eudeba, 1965, p. 127.
2. Jorge Balán, paper presented to the second meeting
of the Comparative Project on Higher Education in Latin America, Buenos
Aires, August, 1990.
3. The Interamerican Development Bank has financed the
building of most university campi in Brazil.