Latin American Universities

Bill Ratliff writes: An interesting commentary (3/1305) on Latin American education by Andres Oppenheimer, the main Latin American columnist for the Miami Herald. Maybe you have already seen it, or the London Times report he cites. Here is "Survey puts Latin American colleges among worst".

A recent ranking of the world's 200 top universities should sound alarm bells throughout Latin America -- it shows that only one university in the region makes the list, and it's placed at No. 195. Are Latin American universities among the worst in the world, as the survey by The Times of London's Education Supplement indicates? Or was the survey skewed against Spanish-speaking countries? According to The Times survey, U.S. universities -- led by Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- are by far the world's best, taking 11 of the top 20 slots. They are followed by Western European, Australian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Israeli schools. The only Latin American university that makes the list -- barely -- is Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM), a 269,000-student public school that is strong in law and medicine, but whose economics and business-related schools are considered poor by Mexico's private sector and international academics. ''I'm not surprised at all by the survey's overall results,'' says Jeffrey Puryear, a Latin American education expert with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Latin America's mostly public universities have been funded by their governments with very few demands regarding their quality. There are no serious standards for careful evaluation of universities, which universities resist.''  The Times survey took into account five criteria, led by a peer review by 1,300 academics from 88 countries. Other criteria included the number of university citations in academic journals and the faculty-student ratio.

The Times editors say there was a proper geographic representation in the survey. Of the 1,300 academics questioned for the peer review, nearly 300 were from Latin America, they said. But if the survey had included more academics from developing countries, the results would have probably been the same. A separate world ranking by the University of Shanghai in China shows an even greater U.S. dominance among the world's top universities, they said. The Times survey editor, John O'Leary, told me in a telephone interview from London that part of the reason behind Latin America's poor scoring may have been ''the language issue,'' which affected Latin American schools' citation ratings. Most international academic journals are in English, and Spanish-language studies are often not translated or cited in major world journals. In addition, U.S., European and Asian universities have more money, because they have greater government and private contributions. In the United States and Britain, universities charge tuition, have huge endowments and benefit from tax laws that encourage donations. Editors of The Times Education Supplement say they had originally compiled a rating of the world's top 500 universities, which was not published for lack of space. And its results were not very different from the final 200-school ranking: out of the 500 schools, there were only 14 Latin American universities, including the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey and the Universidad Catolica de Peru, they said.

Puryear said one of the main things Latin American universities should do is change how they are funded and start charging tuition. ''Instead of giving money to universities, Latin American governments should give the money to the students, and let the students choose which universities to go to,'' Puryear said. ``That way, universities would have to compete to attract students. Right now, they don't.'' My conclusion: The gut reaction from Latin American education officials is to dismiss The Times survey as biased. And, to some degree, they are right: Even if citations from English-language international journals accounted for only 20 percent of the ranking's total evaluation system, it's a category in which Latin American universities were at an obvious disadvantage.  But it is also true that most Latin American public university systems live in denial. When The Times survey came out, Mexico's UNAM university sent out ecstatic press releases to the media that resulted in headlines such as UNAM leads Latin American universities. In fact, its bottom-of-the-list standing, and the absence of other Latin American universities on the list, should have been seen as a regional scandal and a call to do something about an issue that could hamper Latin America's development for decades to come.

RH: I see a reverse correlation between the quality of universities and the happiness of the people, in which Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico and Puerto Rico excel.  I said there is something wrong with the concept of happiness, which usually means happy go lucky. The US was founded on puritanical principles of duty and responsibility, but the Founding Fathers changed that to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today we use the word fun, of which the Spring break antics are a manifestation.  I fear for our universities.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: June 11, 2005