Latin American higher education: the good, the bad and the ugly at The Economist

There is an article at The Economist with some overly strong generalizations about Latin American higher education. I’ve been wondering a lot if I should waste my time writing an answer since the day I read it. Despite acknowledging that one can’t expect much from a general-purpose magazine from far away, I felt that the magazine covering was pretty unfair and potentially prejudicial to many hard working researchers across the region. To sum up the article’s point, the University of São Paulo (USP) is good (in fact, an example to be followed), leading “old-established public universities […], Catholic institutions or secular non-profit places […]” are bad and the environment is ugly. Indeed, the ugly issues raised across the article are true and put our institutions in bad shape. However, the extent to which they affect each institution varies a lot. It’s important to review part of that ugliness and detach some strings.

The bad “old-established public universities”
Few colleges and even fewer universities in Brazil are more than a century old. However, four Nobel Prize laureates studied or taught at the University of Buenos Aires, which is among The Economist’s “bad list”.

The bad “Catholic institutions”
What’s wrong with being a leading Catholic institution? For years along, PUC-Rio’s Computer Science post-graduate program was rated above the rest of the programs in Brazil according to a peer-reviewed process endorsed by the Brazilian Ministry of Education, what is even more impressive if one consider that there were only 4 possible grades (from 3 to 7). Not to mention that many important Brazilian researchers studied or taught at such places.

“Research output is unimpressive”
There are many subjects that are not much studied in Brazil, including the one I’m working with, but there are many others in which Brazilian research is cutting edge as the article itself pointed out. Broadening our range of expertise is much more a matter of establishing more universities and making them compete for funding at a fair environment than blaming the institutional framework.

“teaching techniques are old-fashioned and students drop out in droves [..] Good teaching and research are not rewarded with extra funding or promotions; institutions do not lose money if their students drop out”
Students drop out in droves only when the admission acceptance rate is high, which is not the case in well-paid careers at top notch universities in Brazil. In practice, universities in some other countries might accept anyone but the selection that would occur at the admission exams is transferred to the junior classes. I don’t think that such model is reasonable for the size of the junior classes that it incurs. Anyway, that does not happen in Brazilian public universities.

At least in the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), institutional evaluations are promoted at the end of every term and are used to periodically evaluate professors whereas some student unions also promote independent evaluations that are occasionally used to recognize teaching excellence by the institution itself. As for research excellence, there is a special funding for highly productive researchers in Brazil and of course that it counts if someone is evaluated for tenure.

“Nowhere else in Latin America can match USP. […] ‘No one in the United States tries to figure out what a great university is; they just look at the Ivy League,’ he says [Andreas Schleicher of the OECD]. ‘It’s very important to have great institutions: they define success.’”
I think that our problem here is the opposite. There are some self-fulfilling prophecies in Brazil that discourage competition and academic excellence, most of which telling that good research is only made at some places or regions. Not surprisingly, many people leave their alma matter universities and cross the country under such suppositions. In fact, USP is the oldest, biggest and wealthiest university from the richest Brazilian state; but Unicamp – the second biggest and wealthiest university from the same state – holds much more patents and was invited in 2010 to nominate candidates to the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Moreover, there are great institutions supported by the federal government across the country, such as UFMG, UFRJ and UFPE; as well as some other state universities and private ones. According to the subject of interest, the ranking of those institutions may vary a lot and USP is not in the top of many of them.

I once studied at Unicamp and now I study at USP. I think that both have their merits and are able to develop good researchers through their post-graduate programs. However, I believe that a bit more of bureaucracy centralization would be beneficial to USP.

“staff are unsackable”
Despite earning above average, staff usually is on strike every year. For that reason, universities opt for outsourcing as much as they can and it usually works.

“the curriculum is old-fashioned and politicized”
Let’s say that a “left-wing perspective” does help you scoring high at the humanities topics in the admission exams, especially at USP. However, my experience in the humanities being an undergraduate student at Unicamp was not that bad: once, an economics professor invited another one with whom he did not agree at all just the give the class the opposite perspective. Still, I think that there exist some issues to be discussed about curriculum but the role of the top universities is to provide a solid basis instead of teaching trending topics that always change.

“At many Latin American public universities students pay nothing […] No country in the region has worked out satisfactorily how to share the cost of degrees between students and taxpayers”
Indeed, our biggest issue is the imbalance between higher and primary public education: despite both being for free, the former is always privileged. In practice, if parents want their children to be accepted in a public university in Brazil, they shall never consider putting their kids at a public primary school – or be very lucky.

If there is one thing that Brazilians are good at, I believe that is how much we can criticize each other: we have very few unquestionable heroes in our history. Personally, I was always complaining about something at Unicamp and now I’m always irritating colleagues for comparing Unicamp favorably against USP. However, comparisons are not harmless and must be made with care. If it was not by the strong sentences in The Economist’s article, I would get a little uncomfortable with what they wrote but, as a criticizer, I could not deny anything. I hope that no one abroad takes seriously that USP is way better than everything else and keep working with the other universities to help us improving our academic excellence and competitiveness.