Universities in Latin America in a World Class of Their Own

Feb 17 2012 - 11:32am


One of the most influential promoters of the idea that emerging countries need, and deserve, world-class universities, now has some caveats to offer.“I sometimes worry about having contributed to raising expectations about the importance of world-class universities,” says Jamil Salmi, higher education coordinator for the World Bank and author of “The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities” and co-editor of “The Road to Academic Excellence.” For one thing, world-class universities must rely upon the solid base of a differentiated higher education system in order to actually serve their countries well.
Then, building world-class universities entails a major financial effort, diverting scarce public resources from other purposes, such as improving the quality of less selective universities serving the majority of undergraduates, technical schools, and the education sector as a whole. And finally, it is questionable to what extent emerging economies can afford to enter into a global competitive battle for academic prestige embodied in one or a few flagship universities - even if they have good reasons for enhancing the domestic capacity for research and advanced training.
Mr. Salmi, or the World Bank, should not take all the credit, or the blame, for driving forward the idea of world-class achievement.
The idea was jump-started in East Asia when China’s former president Jiang Zemin announced in 1998 that his government would build 10 universities which would become top “world-class” institutions. World Bank loans had played a key role in the modernization of Chinese education since the 1980s, but not in this daring move - clearly driven by national ambitions.
Taiwan and Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, followed suit with their own policies geared to develop elite universities and attract the best faculty and international students. 
The Latin American response to global competition has been much slower and subdued. In global rankings only a couple of Latin American institutions came within the 200 ‘best’, and none were mentioned among the top 100. But the QS report named Brazil’s largest and most prestigious university, the University of Sao Paulo as best in South America and placed it 169th in the world. This highlighted the dominance of Brazilian universities within Latin America. Sixty-five were named among the top 200 in Latin America. These rankings fit well within the image of Brazil as a new global power.
Few observers, however, took notice that Chile, a much smaller country in both population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than Brazil, had 25 universities named among the best 200 - with two of them (Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile) in second and fourth places, respectively. This was, perhaps, a favourable outcome for the Chilean model, now threatened by mass student mobilization demanding free tuition in publicly supported universities which are among Latin America’s best and most selective. Argentina, long considered regionally a leading country in education and science, with the highest post-secondary enrollment, three Nobel prizes in science, and a century-long tradition in research, had only one university among the “best”10 – though 25 were ranked within the 200 list. Argentine education minister Alberto Sileoni pointed out that the cost of public universities in Argentina – unlike Chile - was born by the state. But Mr. Sileoni avoided any reference to the diminished academic prestige and research productivity of Argentine universities.
There is consensus among experts that rankings, with their many imperfections, are a better measure of research capacity and research output than the quality of teaching and learning.
Thus, nobody should be surprised by the low marks received by Latin American universities, still largely teaching institutions which are focused on training professionals for public service and private industry, although, they too emphasize the importance of research. Latin American universities have long aimed to strengthen their research base, but policy makers have often been ambivalent about this. Governments have preferred to place strategically important scientific research in laboratories and centres more isolated from politics and public sight than the public university. Flagship national universities tend to be massive institutions, mega universities with a remit to serve all, even if not to serve them well. Research, when practiced in protected niches by first-rate scholars, remains confined and researchers have limited interaction with students in the universities.
World-class universities may be defined as global players: their research and teaching is driven by global quality standards. Obviously they also respond to national, or even local, demands, but their main products – publications, inventions, and graduates - have to be able to compete internationally. In order to do so, they search internationally for the best faculty, academic administrators, and students. In fact, internationalisation of faculty and students are often taken as a key dimension of top-ranking universities.
The best Latin American universities, by-and-large, fail this test. Only in recent years have some universities moved to attract talent across national boundaries. There are a number of institutional barriers - language, salaries, visas, institutional rules, and academic traditions.
The dampening of the academic marketplace in North America and Western Europe increase the chances of success (as is happening in Asia), although institutional rigidities and the negative reaction of many academic communities remain major hurdles.
Expatriates – Latin Americans who study or work in the US or Western Europe and foreign academics who take up posts in Latin American universities - may play a key role in fostering a competitive academic culture, measuring up to global
standards and nurturing the ambition to build world-class research universities in the region.