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Papers presented at the Symposium on
'THE FUTURE OF UNIVERSITIES'
5 December 1996, Santiago, Chile

(held in conjunction with the 43rd Session of the Council of the United Nations University)



HIGHER EDUCATION IN LATIN AMERICA: THE PRESENT AND THE CHALLENGES

Jose Joaquin Brunner
Minister and Secretary-General, Government of Chile


This century has seen universities play a major role in Latin America. Traditional public universities, in particular, trained professionals who would later become leaders in the public sector; they also paved the way for the gradual expansion of cultural elites and established the foundations for national research and development systems. Furthermore, these universities facilitated social mobility, served as political socialization channels and, in general, fostered the development of national cultures. They also provided a space for critical thought and expression, particularly during the times when non-democratic regimes were in power.

However, in the last two decades, the reality of Latin-American higher education has undergone dramatic changes. There has been a rapid rise in the number of tertiary institutions, both in the public and in the private sector. Together with universities, non-university higher education institutions have multiplied. Today, the Latin-American tertiary education universe incorporates 700 universities-more than half of which are private institutions-and some 3,000 non-university institutes, of which approximately two-thirds are private.

The number of higher education students has multiplied fourfold in 25 years, reaching 8 million students. These are catered for by over 700,000 teachers of highly disparate and heterogeneous academic expertise, working under very diverse conditions.

Thus, differentiation and heterogeneity have become the main features of our higher education systems. Their relationship with Governments and labour markets has also become increasingly complex and frequently frustrating. On the one hand, traditional public universities have lost their old sense of purpose and their role has become more diffuse and eluding definition. And on the other hand, there still remains, in most countries, a varied range of market-oriented private institutions, solely financed through the fees paid by students and their families.

Higher professional and technical training is no longer the privilege of a small number of centres claiming, but not always practicing, a vocation for excellence and public service. Today, however, professions integrate rapidly into market movements and become the focus of obsessive estimates on their return rates; they are increasingly defined by their public and social use rather than by status and vocation. Furthermore, there is an escalating complexity in the relationship between higher education systems, states, and governments. In the past, public responsibility provided a bond, i.e., the state would finance universities and these, in turn, would provide a social service, in a climate of autonomy. This bond has been replaced by a contradictory and confusing relationship, which often gives rise to conflict and tension.

Higher education is no longer financed exclusively by the state, and governments find it increasingly difficult to justify disbursements for a few universities only, or for the benefit of only a few students. The disorderly development of private university education markets has brought about new problems that the countries of the region have not been able to solve in a satisfactory manner.

In general, it has been difficult to combine the requirements imposed by academic quality with the right of individuals to found institutions. Much in the same manner, in most countries in the region, it has not been possible to establish legal and technical mechanisms to ensure the transparency of such markets and a greater commitment from the institutions competing on these markets with continuous accreditation and assessment processes.

Against this background, it is not surprising that there is a widespread feeling of discontent with higher education in Latin America. In fact, despite the true changes occurred in the last 25 years, results have been meager, particularly in view of the challenges ahead. Authorities, experts, and various national and international reports pinpoint clear symptoms of dysfunction in national higher education systems, at least in four major areas:

  • little or very disparate quality and inadequate adaptation of teaching processes and "products";
  • limited equality of access, treatment, and results;
  • internal efficiency problems with the management of public institutions and their resources; and
  • lack of policies to correct the above defects and to create an environment conducive to operational quality, equality and efficiency.

No less frustrating is the issue of developing R&D systems. Scientists and engineers in the region working in these fields only represent three percent of world figures, while scientific authors only make up a paltry 1.3 percent. Of the 400,000 invention patents issued annually worldwide, Latin America only represented less than three percent in the year 1985. Resources invested by the region in this sector are also insufficient: only one percent of world figures.

There is a consensus that Latin-American science and technology systems share, at least, the following problems: lack of investment in R&D, which does not exceed 0.5 percent of GNP; little incidence of business expense, a consequence of the small share of the private production sector in the development of technological and research capacity; relative isolation of research centres from the other components of the national innovation system, particularly in the production sector; and little renewal and slow growth of the scientific and engineering staff.

The major cause of these deficiencies, as mentioned earlier, lies in the organizational context in which higher education and R&D systems operate. Such context does not provide adequate incentives. Basically, the context may be described by the following three elements:

  1. A lack of assessment processes for activities and institutions, which are conducted without any quality, relevant, efficient, and socially adjusted "external opinion";
  2. In the case of public resources allocation, predominance of automatic mechanisms operating mainly by inertia, in the guise of grants allocated without any link to performance, results and productivity of activities and institutions; and
  3. Lack or insufficiency of public policies that may influence change in this context.

Then, should there be a desire to change the context, it would seem necessary to change the three above-mentioned elements.

As a result of the establishment of a new operational context, a new policies and incentives context could arise from the combination of:

  1. The ongoing assessment of institutions and activities with the participation of academic community peers, experts from the public sector, and representatives of the private and business sector;
  2. Diversification of the finance sources for institutions and activities, in an effort to transfer the focus from automatic grants to demand-sensitive, public and private finance schemes, based on performance and/or goals agreements in the case of state allocations, on assessed outcomes, on competitive projects, on tenders, or on "formulas" encouraging goals which are of public interest; and
  3. Strategic leadership of higher education and R&D systems, according to long- term public policy aims, consisting of the progressive improvement of performance in such systems, as a function of national capacity building in the training, research, and innovation fields. Therefore, a different development could be expected in knowledge networks on which the capacity of nations to develop and increase their competitiveness is based.

Thus, for example, we should endeavour to find and encourage the formation of a network of institutions, activities, and communication pathways characterized by their flexibility and adaptation to change. Such a network would support a higher density of people and resources spread all across the space shaped by these networks, as well as more connection points between the instances of knowledge, and of the latter with private economy and the public sector.

Furthermore, there would be a more varied supply, and it would be sensitive to the requirements of staff and learning. Segments of these networks would operate directly on the market; there would be public sector segments and segments located in the non-governmental, non-profit-making organizations sphere. This would require, however, a change of approach: from the design of knowledge/learning networks as an eminently public service, governed by administrative controls and exclusively financed by the state, to the design of such networks as a blend consisting of a variety of public, private (market), and community services, each one ruled by different "logic," with diversified sources of finance and a higher rate of duplication and competence in the supply of staff and knowledge.

Additionally, it can be expected that those network segments would develop specific function specialization, with the increasing gravitation of the private sector in offering courses, programmes and activities leading to professional and technical awards, as well as in supplying consulting and advice services. There would also be a higher concentration of public segments offering advance courses to train researchers, producing knowledge in several basic science fields, transferring strategic technologies for industrial development and, especially, generating state policies and "selective interventions" to create medium- and long-term innovation capacity.

Finally, the increasingly internationalized nature of knowledge/learning networks is to be considered one of all these elements. In this respect, our Latin-American higher education systems are still conducting business in the same way they did at the beginning of this century: they are alienated from each other, inward rather than outward looking, with no organic links to unite them, not even with neighbouring countries. Academic exchanges are sporadic and not systematized. There are no schemes to allow transnational professional training; on the contrary, there are multiple bureaucratic hurdles obstructing the recognition of foreign studies and awards and the supply of professional services by citizens of the other Latin-American countries. There is little concert of effort to organize advanced excellence programmes. Our scientific communities are intent on developing their own internal components instead of complementing initiatives and resources, thus wasting valuable opportunities of joining efforts and taking advantage of their comparative assets.

The above is in contrast with the febrile integrating activity in the economic field, and with the globalization in communications. It almost seems as if the thinking head of the region is lagging irreparably behind, while the "body" moves faster and with greater imagination in the area of investment, trade, and business alliances. In the medium term, this situation cannot be sustained.

Therein lies, then, one of the greatest challenges for integration: how to create -- above the net of material and market exchanges -- knowledge, political communication, information exchange, and processing networks for academic cooperation and for cooperation between universities and business.

The old public universities in the region and the new private universities have a major role to play here. They must take up this role promptly, or they will miss out on this historic opportunity and new actors and processes will take their place, better adapted and more sensitive to the challenges of internationalization.

Thank you.


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