Latin America’s Universities Need to Modernize by Embracing STEM Education

Times Higher Education recently released its ranking of Latin America’s leading universities and, to the surprise of few who follow the region closely, Brazilian universities topped the list. …

Times Higher Education recently released its ranking of Latin America’s leading universities and, to the surprise of few who follow the region closely, Brazilian universities topped the list. Brazil’s impressive performance owes to generous state funding for universities, competitive admissions, and an overall high level of R&D spending relative to GDP. Chilean universities also ranked highly, punching well above the country’s weight.

University Latin America Ranking (2016) World University Rank (2015-2016)
University of São Paulo (Brazil) 1 201-250
State University of Campinas (Brazil) 2 351-400
Pontifical Catholic Univ. of Chile 3 401-500
University of Chile 4 501-600
Federal Univ. of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) 5 501-600
Pontifical Catholic Univ. of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) 6 501-600
Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil) 7 601-800
Monterrey Institute of Technology (Mexico) 8 501-600
Nat.l Autonomous Univ. of Mexico 9 401-500
University of the Andes (Colombia) 10 501-600

Source: Times Higher Education: World University Rankings.

Overall, universities from seven different countries are featured on the region’s top 50 list, ample diversity to draw praise from THE for “a more diverse higher education playing field” than that found at the worldwide level.

Country diversity aside, on a regional level the rankings must be considered a bit of a let down. Latin America is a region steeped in university tradition. At least six colleges across the region had graduated students before Harvard got around to opening its doors in 1636—including Peru’s National University of San Marcos (est. 1551). It is a region of awesome libraries. And it boasts seven winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature since WWII.

Truth is, according to Fernando Valenzuela Migoya, a Latin America EdTech expert, “Latin American higher-ed. institutions have struggled to fully develop 21st century skills.” Latin America’s top university is the University of São Paulo, which comes in between 201-250 in THE global ranking. Most other leading universities in the region only place between 600-800 globally. That’s not exactly rarefied company. Today many university systems across the region simply are not globally competitive.

Poverty is the most proximate cause of underperformance by universities across region. When national and state governments face problems like widespread illiteracy, poor access to basic healthcare, and shoddy roads, earmarking money for universities tends to get overlooked.

Several countries also have a problem with entrenched teachers unions. In Mexico’s case, the union is better known for their tactics at protesting in the streets than teaching in the classroom. “In many schools, unions are in charge of recruiting, teaching jobs are more or less hereditary and bad teachers are almost impossible to sack. Small wonder some 55% of Mexican 15-year-olds lack basic proficiency in mathematics,” noted a recent article in The Economist. For the past month, the national teacher’s union has shut down Oaxaca in protest of the government’s attempt at national education reform.

Elsewhere though, once formidable universities have become masterfully aloof from modern industry. Argentina is notable for its almost complete absence from the THE list; only National University of Córdoba cracks the top 800. (In other rankings, the University of Buenos Aires and the National University of La Plata best Cordoba.)

Fernando Valenzuela
“STEM has to solve relevant issues for the region by applying science and technology to the big development challenges that have to be solved to fully take advantages of the knowledge economy.”— Fernando Valenzuela, Latin America EdTech Expert

A study of IT wages in South America published by Nearshore Americas earlier this year showed that about 80% of IT professionals—that is, programmers as well as system administrators and project managers—in Buenos Aires have a bachelor’s degree in a technical field. This is near the low end of the scale for the region. In Lima, by contrast, 95% of IT professionals at software firms have a degree.

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Because of the long-time that it takes to complete a degree, often six years for many technical fields, many smart programmers in Buenos Aires simply take a job before they finish their studies.

Nearshore investors continue to shortlist Argentina as a hub for software development. This owes to the reputation established by firms based in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and La Plata, as well as the country’s reputation as being a market where English is widely spoken. So, Argentina’s software development industry has grown despite the country’s public university system, not because of it. It is an outlier, not a model.

Like it or not, the level of university education is typically the quickest, broad stroke way to assess if a workforce is skilled. The State of the Nearshore—2016 (free download here) showed that 57% of respondents ranked “doubts about talent pool” as their first or second biggest concern when it comes to selling nearshore to clients. Going forward, the divide between credentials and talent will need to continue to narrow if the nearshore is to remain an attractive destination.

On this score, there is reason for hope. For example, Fernando Valenzuela notes, “STEM areas are definitely growing,” though he notes that the low percentage of female students in STEM “is a wide concern.” Innovative collaborations between U.S. and Mexican universities, as well as the rising cache of Brazilian and Chilean universities with a technical bent, promises greater penetration of STEM training into Latin American universities.

The yawn between educational training and STEM workforce skills needs to be resolved. It is the only way that education can fully empower young men and young women in Latin America in the twenty-first century.