By Michaela Martin and Pedro Henriquez Guajardo //
Enrolments in higher education in the Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) region have increased from 1.8 million students at the beginning of the 1970s to 24 million in 2015. According to estimates, the participation rate in the region is currently around 48% on average, but there are major differences in participation across the LAC countries.
The vast expansion of higher education is due to the increase in students from all backgrounds gaining an upper secondary education in many of the 33 LAC countries, but also to the growth of the middle classes, who strongly view higher education as an opportunity for social mobility. This expansion has increased both the diversity of higher education institutions and the diversity of students, many of whom today are first generation students.
The LAC region is economically dynamic, but the economy of Latin American countries has also been hit by recurrent economic crises and more recently by an overall recession in economic growth.
Countries like Argentina and Brazil face economic austerity measures that constrain public funding and therefore the capacity of the state to support the expansion of the higher education sector. Other countries such as Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua have experienced past or recent periods of civil war or social unrest, with politically highly divided societies.
The region is also marked by high levels of social inequality, in particular experienced by people of indigenous and Afro-descendent origin. While the total population in Latin America was estimated at 577 million people in 2015, the indigenous population is approximately 8%, while the Afro-descendent population is 22% in total.
But there is a growing public awareness in the region that higher education is necessary to improve the social condition of disadvantaged groups, including indigenous and Afro-descendent people.
In line with Sustainable Development Goal Four of the UN international agenda, the objective for higher education in the region is quality with equitable access. Quality assurance systems have been in place for several decades in most LAC countries. In general, these have helped to increase public assurance that institutions fulfil the commitments made to their students and society.
But there is also a growing awareness that a new generation of quality assurance systems needs to be developed. These would focus less on the external accreditation of the many higher education institutions and even more study programmes, but rather recognise the capacity of higher education institutions to manage their own quality and certify this institutional capacity for quality assurance.
The third Regional Conference on Higher Education (CRES 2018) was organised within this context by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO-IESALC), the National University of Córdoba, the Argentinian National Inter-University Council (CIN) and the Secretariat of University Policies (SPU) of the Ministry of Education of Argentina.
It took place from 11 to 14 June in Córdoba, Argentina, and brought together several thousand participants, comprising ministerial officials, university leaders, academics, administrative staff, students, higher education networks and professional associations.
The conference was the third of this type over the past 30 years. It followed the first Regional Conference on Higher Education that was held in Havana, Cuba, in 1996 and the second Regional Conference in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, in 2008.
It was organised to allow participatory discussion through the organisation of fora and debates focussing on the actual state of higher education in Latin America, its strengths and weaknesses, its history and evolution, as well as on improvements and achievements.
Higher education as a public good
The conference followed the rubric that higher education is a public good, a human and universal right and that it is the responsibility of governments to support it financially.
Therefore, discussions on the role of higher education for social development, its contribution to the sustainable development goals of the UN, the relationship of higher education and the state, responsible autonomy and accountability were included on the agenda.
A wide range of other topics was also covered, such as the internationalisation of higher education and regional integration, equitable access to higher education, the social mobility of higher education graduates, the creation of flexible learning pathways for students and the development of the scientific and technological capacity needed to solve the many issues that LAC societies currently face.
Presentations, fora and debates were conducted in a highly participative format with many opportunities for exchange among the different actor groups represented. The many contributions made were brought together in a Declaration which supports the transformational role of higher education in the region and academic autonomy and freedom, among other pledges.
This will serve as a guideline for the development of higher education in the Latin American and the Caribbean region.
Michaela Martin is a programme specialist at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, and Pedro Henriquez Guajardo is director of the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (Instituto Internacional de la Unesco para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe) or UNESCO-IESALC.
Source: University World News: A commitment to social transformation in Latin America