"Rationalization" of Higher Education in Latin America

Simon Schwartzman

Paper presented to the meeting of the Task Force on Higher Education, Latin American Studies Association, Los Angeles, September, 1992.

Latin American higher education institutions are known for their sluggishness, rigidity and inefficient use of resources. A common explanation is that they lack managerial tradition, and would benefit from efforts to train their administrative staff and to provide them with the tools of modern business efficiency. The fact, however, is that several of these institutions hold the region's best competence in management in their specialized schools, which educates the executives of their country's more successful private companies. A slightly more sophisticated explanation is that their inefficiency derives from their status as public institutions; if they could be privatized, and ruled according to the requirements of market rationality, their efficiency would increase. The fact, however, is that some of the best run universities in Latin America are public, and many of the private ones are known for their lack of quality and competence. It is clear that the issue of rationality and rationalization should be discussed on firmer grounds.

Two preliminary and very well known observations should be made on the onset. Higher education institutions are multi-functional, and cannot be measured against a common standard (like profit, in the private sector); and then there is the traditional distinction between "efficiency" and "efficacy". Private diploma mills are probably very efficient in getting the students quickly through their educational rituals, but not very efficacious in providing good training and education.

These two observations set the stage for the discussions of "rationalization": it is a quest for better use of available resources, and the production of a basket of non-commensurate products needed by society, in proper quantity and quality. These products range from professional to general education, from scientific to technical training, from mass to elite education, from the transmission of conventional wisdom to the generation of new and controversial knowledge.

It is not surprising that, when governments and political parties and movements try to press their country's higher education institutions towards rationalization, they tend to simplify them, and force them into the Procrustean bed of a single mode. In the following, we shall review some of these attempts, and what they entail. We can organize this discussion in terms of three dimensions: the content of education (research vs. teaching), the control mechanisms (market vs. state) and the organizational setting (centralization vs. decentralization, the issue of autonomy). As we look at them, we will be led to take into account the different groups that participate in the establishment of policy agenda for higher education in the region, and the experiences of different countries.

The 1968 higher education reform in Brazil was probably the regions' most ambitious attempt to bring a country's higher education establishment into one single dimension of quality and evaluation, that of scientific research. For the reformers, the research component was the soul of the university, which would take its lead if freed from the constraints brought about by the traditional chair system, the divisions among non-academic professional schools and the presence of multi-disciplinarity in integrated campuses. The reformers were too naive in their contempt for the strength of the professional schools, and did not predict the pressure towards mass higher education which was just getting speed in the country. In the ensuing years, Brazilian higher education moved further and further away from the "rationality" of a research-based university model, which remained, however, the only legitimate pattern which all institutions should strive to emulate.

Chile went through two attempts at rationalization since the military took power in 1973. At first, the military brought the universities under intervention, and tried to organize it along a rigid military command structure. There are many reasons why it did not work, the more obvious being the lack of legitimacy of the military government and their agents seated in the rectors' chairs. Less obvious is the fact that, even in the most favorable conditions, universities are too complex to be handled though mechanisms of vertical control. The 1980 reform went to the other extreme, and tried to place the whole university system under market regulation. In practice, they adopted a mixed system, going from a "core funding" to the public and more traditional universities to full self-reliance for new institutions. The belief in the strength of the market made the Chilean authorities more relaxed about the internal organization of the institutions. A three-tier system was introduced (full universities, professional institutes and technical training centers), and deregulation was supposed to open the way for further differentiation. There seems to be a clear consensus in Chile that some degree of market competition (whether in the allocation of public resources or in charging tuition and engaging in contract research) is good for higher education, but does not work on itself. Someone has to set long-term goals and provide standards for quality and performance, making sure that the educational products being sold in the market adhere to some minimal requisites of quality and competence; someone has to see that higher education continues to produce the public goods that the market would not buy, but a country cannot dispense with. This is, roughly, the aim of the reforms being proposed by the new democratic government: the creation of a National Council of Education, the development of mechanisms for systematic evaluation of performance, and procedures of accreditation and reaccreditation for new and old higher education institutions.

The 1968 Brazilian and the 1980 Chilean reforms share the fact that they were introduced from the top-down, by authoritarian regimes, and that they tried to introduce concepts and procedures which were new to the Latin American experience, namely the centrality of research and the importance of market regulation. In both cases, these concepts lost their status as the only answer to the problems of rationalization, but survived the military regimes, and became important elements in the countries' higher education institutions.

The third dimension, that of autonomy and self-regulation, dates back from the Cordoba movement of 1918, which became known as the "Reforma Universitaria" movement, and still reverberates through the Continent. Seen from hindsight, the Reforma can be seen as an over-politicized movement that worked as a springboard for the political career of middle-class intellectuals (the most outstanding example being, perhaps, that of Haya de la Torre and the Peruvian Acción Popular Revolucionaria - APRA - party), and did not help to improve de quality and rationality of Latin American higher education institutions. In fact, the Reforma movement tried to bring to Latin American universities the centuries-old principle that universities should be self-regulated institutions, based on the notion that no one except the academics themselves holds the expertise to tell the universities what to do, and that they should be free to explore and study whatever their minds dictate, free from outside interference and authority.

What was missing in the Reforma movement, of course, was that in reality most Latin American universities were not academic institutions, and the autonomy conquered by the movement benefitted not so much the academics but the students, who turned the universities into sanctuaries from where the governments could be attacked and abused. The 1918 enshrined the principle of "gobierno tripartito" - a division of power between students, professors and alumni. No reference was made to the universities' employers, in part because they did not "belong" to the social group of the educated, but also because they were so few of them - the universities were part-time teaching institutions that did not need more than a handful of employees to clean the buildings and handle the registry of degrees, diplomas and monthly payments for the professors.

Almost a century later, university autonomy is still an important subject, but the actors have changed, and the universities are not the same. Between the twenties and fifties the student movement in the universities were the breeding grounds for a substantial part of the region's political elites. After the sixties, the student movement moved further and further to the left, and in many countries the campuses became the hiding places for urban guerrillas. In the eighties most of the mobilization of the previous years withered away, and what remained of the student movement turned into just another pressure group claiming for free tuition, subsidized restaurants and public transportation and other minor privileges.

As the student movement faded away, a new actor emerged, the unionized university teacher. Until the sixties, to teach in a university was an honorary and prestigious activity for successful professionals, but very seldom a full-time activity with a corresponding salary. Then, in the public universities in many countries, thousands of professionals were hired as university teachers, responding to the expansion of enrollment, very often without the corresponding academic credentials. In Mexico, in 1970, there were 24 thousand professors in universities, most of them hired as part time; twenty years later there were about 100 thousand, a large percentage of which with full salaries, of whom only 6 thousand could be classified as "highly qualified researchers". In Brazil, in 1990, there ware about 130 thousand university teachers, 54 thousand with full-salaries, with only 13% of the total holding a doctor or equivalent degree. The number of administrative employees also grew, most of them, in the public institutions, with the status and privileges of civil servants. Academic autonomy, for these new groups, acquired a completely new meaning. It became, first, the autonomy to chose the university authorities through direct elections; second, the idea of "gobierno tripartito" remained, but the alumni were replaced by the employees; third and foremost, but basic goal of autonomy was to protect the teachers and employees from meritocratic policies, to assure job stability, equal salaries and regular job promotion. It would be unfair to say that these groups are not interested in the rationality, efficiency and quality of university work. They argue that no university could work without proper salaries and job security for its personnel, and that these are the basis upon which everything else - good teaching, high quality research, competent administration - would be built. In recent years, with the states being forced to reduce their expenditures, salary demands came to monopolize the full attention and to make it very difficult to raise other types of issues in countries like Argentina and, to a lesser degree, in Brazil.

The unions' definition of autonomy, however, is not unchallenged. "Evaluation" is the new buzzword in Latin American higher education, and it brings back into the scene two actors which seemed to have disappeared, the academic-researcher and the alumni. For the former, universities should come under the control of peer review committees, which should enforce an autonomy based on academic competence, and not necessarily located in each institution - it is the academic community, not the universities themselves, which should be the subject of autonomy. The alumni appear now as the organized liberal professions - in the field of medicine, law, dentistry, engineering, and many others - which want to participate in the decisions to create new institutions, and in the validation of degrees provided by the universities. Autonomy, for them, should not reside in the universities, but in the professional associations, which appear as the guardians of the old traditions of professional autonomy and self-rule. Rationalization, for them, is to have a smaller number of qualified professionals, which could serve society as well as possible, according to their own standards, and get the proper compensation for their work. These redefinitions of "autonomy" share the notion that the university institution as such is not the legitimate subject of self-rule, and in that sense they coincide with those in government which cannot see the universities except as just another section of the public services, and as such subject to the same rules and controls as everyone else.

I believe this discussion, sketchy as it is, can help to place the question of "rationalization" in Latin American universities in its context. Far from being a "technical" or "management" question, the issue of rationalization is at the core of conflicting groups and their contradictory views about what universities should be. It is obvious that this discussion has left out two or three actors which should be at the center of any discussion of higher education: the families which send their sons to the universities, the institutions which hire the graduates, and the taxpayer which has to foot the bill for public education. The reason for their exclusion is that, so far, they have not been present in the discussions of higher education in Latin America. This situation is about to change, and, as they enter the arena, the question of "rationalization" with acquire a completely different outlook.

Bibliographical note:

This paper was based on several texts produced by the participants in the Latin American Comparative Project on Higher Education Policies, mostly by Rollin Kent (Mexico), José Joaquin Brunner (Chile), Jorge Balán (Argentina), Ricardo Lúcio (Colombia) and Lúcia Klein and Simon Schwartzman (Brazil). <