University Social Engagement: current trends in Latin America and the Caribbean at global/local Universities

Axel Didriksson (coordinator), Adrián Acosta, Eduardo Aponte, Elizabeth Larrea, Denise Leite, Luis Enrique Orozco, Carlos Iván Moreno

This article explores the regional context, orientations in the transformation of higher education during the last decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the XXI in Latin America and the Caribbean.

[Reduced version of the original article. Full version available on open access next March 2017 here]


The Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) has participated very actively in the joint UNESCO Chairs whose subject of study is higher and university education in our region, with the UNESCO Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) having the most important networks and associations of universities, now with 53 affiliated HEIs.

In 2015, the University of Guadalajara’s rector Tonatiuh Bravo Padilla generously and with great vision agreed to host the regional sub-headquarters of GUNi, and since then the university has collaborated with GUNi’s work programme both globally and in Latin America and the Caribbean. The rector also made a commitment to collaborate in GUNi’s global reports, meetings and seminars, and in particular, with the representation of Dr. Francesc Xavier Grau, he offered to contribute with a special regional chapter for the 6th Higher Education in the World Report.

Also, in collaboration with another affiliated university, the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM), the rector offered to participate in the same projects and collaborate in the Spanish translation of the 6th Report.

With this fundamental support, the president and the regional secretary of GUNi for Latin America and the Caribbean proposed a work dynamic to fulfil the above tasks, and this was carried out through the following initiatives: 

a. An analysis of the most important trends occurring in the region from the global/local perspective. Ten countries exhibiting changes and major innovations in the creation of new universities, mainly public, and the discussion of new national laws to redefine the course of their higher education systems were selected for study. These ten cases are (in alphabetical order): Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico. Taking into account the work of the UNESCO Chairs and the most representative researchers in each country, a group of experts was asked to develop a case study for each of the countries to provide the most up-to-date and homogeneous information. These experts also identified a set of variables and indicators that provide a reliable account of the current state of the issue in a critical and analytical way, related to the general references that GUNi was working on at an international level for its 6th Report. The experts who coordinated the country case studies were: Norberto Fernández Lamarra for Argentina; Guido de la Zerda for Bolivia; Denise Leite (regional secretary of GUNi) for Brazil; Francisco Javier Gil for Chile; Luis Enrique Orozco for Colombia; Henning Jensen for Costa Rica; Elizabeth Larrea for Ecuador; Adrián Acosta, Francisco Marquez and Axel Didriksson for Mexico; Ricardo Cuenca for Peru; and Eduardo Aponte for Puerto Rico. 

b. These papers were delivered in early May, and were the central reference point for the development of the Latin American chapter involving a focal drafting group consisting of Adrián Acosta, Denise Leite, Elizabeth Larrea, Luis Enrique Orozco, Eduardo Aponte, Francisco Marquez and Axel Didriksson, with the support and hospitality of the University of Guadalajara, with Dr. Carlos Ivan Moreno and Professor Dulce Alejandra Quirarte representing the director of the Office of Internationalization.

c. The central content of this Latin American chapter, which is presented for the first time in an International GUNi Report (in the perspective of covering the vision of a region in particular), provides a comprehensive, critical and prospective overview of the exhaustion of the ‘classic’ university model that has existed for over one hundred years, and analyses the new components of change and innovation that are taking place, from the variables and indicators that show the emergence of a different scenario (in some countries, as indicated), but also in general in the region as a whole.

d. Therefore, the chapter addresses the change processes and intervention variables that are changing access to higher education, its permanence and the particularities of the academic paths of students and teachers; the construction of new interdisciplinary-type areas of knowledge, but also the extension of disciplines to study fields related to their context of implementation; the increased levels of access to master’s and doctoral studies; the great growth of the participation of women in these studies; the active strengthening of current rates of research and knowledge production; as well as the increase in groups of academic work, cooperation programmes and internationalization, academic mobility, networks and partnerships with emphasis on strengthening the process of horizontal integration, both institutional, sub-regional as well as local/global, in a context where, unfortunately, there is still great inequity and inequality for large sectors of the population regarding their access to the benefits of higher education. 

e. Changes occurring in the field of quality assurance derived from the relevance and social responsibility of universities are addressed with special interest; the criticism of accreditation and ranking institutions, the commodification of educational services, with institutions that grow and multiply with a blatant intention to gain profit and without ethical or social responsibility; but also where highly relevant initiatives are presented to promote affirmative action to guarantee access to higher education for historically marginalized populations such as indigenous, black and Asian people, and other disadvantaged groups with low socioeconomic levels. 

f. Highlighted in this regional panorama, there is a very important and far-reaching national and public policy debate on the reconfiguration of higher education systems in the form of national or organic laws which have positioned massive student and teachers’ movements and redefined terms and concepts of new legislative bills that are impacting the traditional components of the basic functions of university life, in an environment of tension that is not over yet. 

g. Exceptionally, the emergence of new public universities is addressed. These universities are introducing new organizational structures and governance, new curricula, new profiles of entry and exit, a new connection between teaching and research seeking closer links with society and constructing an endogenous model of social production of knowledge, which has placed social innovation at the centre of its activities. 

h. Within this context of redefining state policies on higher education, the chapter discusses the criteria for allocating financial resources and their regulation and implementation in strategic areas, emphasising, above all, that this reallocation should contemplate a multi-year basis and reinforce the public good and social responsibility of universities. The debate continues, but efforts have been made in different countries pointing to the growing importance of these components of enforcement. 

i. Finally, in this regional chapter, emphasis is placed on building a vital strategy at the heart of a new social and educational agenda focused on the new components of the future that articulate a different definition of the social responsibility of universities regarding the production of new knowledge, the democratization of learning and curriculum flexibility. All this should occur within the universities’ local/global relationship with internationalization that does not benefit only some minorities, but with a perspective involving the construction of a new university model (to ensure their longstanding historical, cultural and social function) that seeks to transform itself into a platform for learning, new knowledge and innovation. This could happen if a collective strategy for overall prosperity and good living is implemented, with universities being responsible for overcoming their patronage and old practices that are harmful to their mission, by focusing on working to learn for themselves and for all, and by offering innovative and socially useful knowledge for future generations in a scenario of a sustainable future, justice, equality and equity for all. 

Regional Context

During the last three decades, significant changes have occurred in contemporary university models. Through their substantive functions of teaching, research and dissemination of culture – and many other areas related to organization and institutional and international management, knowledge transfer, student and academic mobility, etc. – the relevance of universities’ work in terms of social responsibility has been revealed as they have sought to highlight their ‘entrepreneurship’, ability to generate innovation, market-oriented research, privatization or commercialization, organization of multinational consortia, proliferation of ‘online’ or virtual classes and programmes, the impact and development of new technologies and the emergence of new universities, some of which have begun to be built and are just starting to develop in the new century. 

The main reflections of this work focus on: the process of differentiation and institutional emergency of local and global responses, but above all the emergence of new universities with a few years of existence, their characteristics, social and economic profile, variety of options and careers and academic innovation. 

From this perspective, referenced research on higher education indicates that traditional university models, both public and private, have already begun to fade and to take on new nuances and characteristics, redefining the traditional boundaries assumed by both (not all public universities are good, nor are all private schools bad, since in both there are niches of relevance and academic mediocrity, without taking into account that huge conglomerates of schools and institutions with strictly profit-focused aims prevail in many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, representing a true educational and social fraud), because they began to face new challenges regarding their social and economic role in a new organization and management of knowledge and learning, in the role of their main actors to achieve closer links with the world of work, and in placing economic innovation and social responsibility at the centre of institutional activities. 

The terms of the debate on change in Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean

In recent decades, the university systems in the region have undergone major processes of change in their relations with the state, economy and society. For our countries, this is translated into a sequence of crises which led to decades of backwardness and a contraction of responsibilities and government efforts to address the very uneven problems of education as a whole, and to the proliferation of market mechanisms for the regulation of academic organization, and the reproduction of gaps in knowledge, learning and the development of modern science and technology. 

From the late twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first century, a trend can be observed in which HEIs faced similar changes to those present in other countries around the world, including: 

a. During the 1980s and 1990s, reforms in higher education centred on state deregulation, institutional decentralization and fragmentation of the types and quality of institutions, especially due to the increase in private and commercial supply and economistic approaches to demand. 

b. Mechanisms, bodies and instruments of assessment, accreditation and control of university systems were generalized in all possible areas of their tasks and actors, with programmes, sectors, individuals and institutions, both inside and outside the secretariats or ministries of higher education, seeking to influence quality levels by means of measuring their outputs and outcomes. Also, new schemes of internationalization, influenced by the Bologna agreement (the Tuning programme, for example), reached a low impact level1, along with the expansion and influence of ‘transnational suppliers’ of academic programmes presented online and new diversified funding schemes. 

c. We sought to boost institutional changes and academic management to favour segments and niches of knowledge production and market-oriented research. However, little progress was made in the implementation of substantive reforms in the organization of research and graduate programmes. 

d. Demand began to outstrip the offer of educational programmes, unfavourably impacting public universities, which were oversubscribed, and gradually leading to an increase in the number of higher technical institutes. However, this did not result in any significant advance in overcoming gaps in inequality, lack of education, desertion, abandonment and marginalization of traditionally excluded sectors. 

e. Recurrence to promoting both administrative and governmental reforms and decisions, but also to creating new careers and areas of knowledge, research and development, encouragement for publications, growth in the number of graduate programmes and some ‘good practices’ (always cancelled out by ‘bad practices’ as a result of the reproduction of bureaucratic and political mechanisms). 

f. Institutional references of international model implementation: the European Union and Bologna; recommendations derived from projects with bodies such as UNESCO, the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); the promotion of ‘world-class university’ models in countries in the Asian Pacific, Australia and the Arab world; what was expressed in discussions about national laws in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Chile, or by initiatives in the sub-regional integration processes in Central America (CSUCA), Caribbean (UNICA), Southern Cone (AUGM), ALBA and UNASUR, more recently. 

g. Systems of extraordinary salaries for academic groups, as parallel systems to the development of the institutional ladder based on merit, research results, or teaching support. 

h. The public good versus the idea that higher education is part of a global service ‘enterprise’. 

From the above perspectives, the conditions for developing a sector producing knowledge, new learning and new institutional profiles were still constrained and often appeared as secondary and marginalized until the end of the previous century under traits of ‘reproductivism’ such as the following: 

  • Little legitimacy of scientific work, where scientific knowledge is not fully valued or sponsored; 
  • A reduced social learning platform, so that the development of skills, abilities, skills, competencies and values related to the production and transfer of knowledge are not promoted or planned, and it is very poorly promoted compared with what happens in other parts of the world; 
  • A case of interest in the productive sector to develop an endogenous capacity in science and technology; “With exports concentrated on natural resources, and relatively small and highly protected manufactured markets, there was no encouragement or need to innovate for a long time. Our lifestyles and consumption patterns tried to imitate the industrialized countries. It was always easier to import ‘key-at-hand’ technology. Even after trade liberalization, multinationals promote almost all R&D programmes in developed countries2”. This lack of coordination, which fails to be expressed in national innovation systems, appears as one of the most important obstacles to the development of knowledge; 
  • A lack of clarity in strategies for science, technology and higher education development. With the gradual withdrawal of the state from financing higher education, science and technology, it was thought that this would entail an increase in the supply of investment from the private sector, which did not happen; 
  • A permanent brain drain, which weakens local efforts and delivers physical and human resources for the development of knowledge in other countries, but without a logic of ‘reverse’ and the smooth transfer of this knowledge by organizing a relationship of positive cooperation to overcome existing gaps, imbalances and asymmetries. 

Within this framework of trends and changes, of fractures and inequalities, the traditional idea of a public hegemonic model university – with the emphasis on responsibility for ‘professionalizing’ and the idea that its main task is to expand and ensure a wider access to this level, and with reference to management and organization schemes based on co-governance, institutional autonomy, state subsidies and the mastery of a curriculum of liberal and disciplinary court – stopped being the predominant ‘model’ in the region. Instead, there began the era of emerging universities, the creation of headquarters and sub-headquarters of important universities, and the creation of many new, innovative or entrepreneurial bills. 

Criticism of such a ‘reproductionist’ model argued that it maintained outdated curricula, as well as repetitive and superfluous teaching practices, or that the state did not need to provide all the resources for public universities, but instead should encourage the diversification of the private sector, investment in new information and communication technologies that would redefine the processes of teaching and traditional organization, thereby creating a search for ‘higher modernity’ driven by the evaluation and accreditation of institutions or programmes, or by being a reference in local or international rankings. 

For universities and higher education institutions in the region, these movements diversified and fragmented the dominant old-style ‘Napoleonic’ professionalizing model of colleges, but the biggest challenge was to find ways of modernization by means of accreditation agencies and evaluation councils. While the Chilean case stands out in the analysis of the constant organizational and content changes during the current period, especially in an attempt to conceal the differences between public and private, in other countries the process of structural changes also began to gain notoriety from the debate on the ‘differentiation’ of university systems. 

However, in countries where they reached no defined priorities to promote changes in universities or centres of scientific innovation, or for the explicit and intentional development of technologies, or other prospects of interest from various governments; or when society does not demand this to be done, nor local governments are interested or aware of the true, long and systematic effort required to deploy a model based on the production and transfer of learning and knowledge. The only thing that could be foreseen was an inertia where the hard work appeared, often marginal, of groups of academics or institutions that were able to grant some importance to resources for specific research projects or often as part of the tenacity of groups or individuals with a greater vision and height. 

When the state has neither a structured and innovative view nor any interest in experimenting or promoting the implementation of an alternative model of education, science and technology, what works is a policy of allowing people to do what they will and letting things happen, which favours the commercialization and privatization of schools and universities. In the conditions of an underdeveloped country, in which education and science remain on the fringe of social and economic life (where unemployment or brain drain predominate, low investment in research becomes more common and quality higher education remains only for the elite) it becomes impossible to achieve new development with justice and equity. 

That is why we have witnessed a social response during this century, voiced by an emerging group of various actors who are expressing the need for a major transformation of both public and private universities. Some examples of these multitudinous demonstrations include the Chilean (2011-2014), the Puerto Rican (2011-2012), the Colombian (2011), and the Mexican (2011-2012) student movements, which represent a qualitative shift in the way this sector has made its demands regarding regulations and policies, or the dominant trend in the academic field of the traditional agenda of debate on public and private, with demonstrations that have transcended the institutional level to the national and have had great media and social impact. 

From other perspectives, in the case of Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, and even in the Central American and Caribbean conglomerate, the debate about a new agenda for the entire higher education system has also taken a great interest in university communities and even beyond the scope of other sectors of society and national politics. In the case of Ecuador, for example, the Organic Law on Higher Education was approved (LOES, 2010) thanks to strong university mobilization, leading to the redefinition of overall public policy on higher education in that country. In Brazil, affirmative action programmes for minorities and traditionally marginal sectors have been tested and implemented, and there has been important development in post-graduates (especially at the doctoral level) and scientific research. For further reference, opposite paths have been taken in Chile and Argentina, where there are cases in which there has been a significant differential treatment of the meaning of public good and responsibility of the state towards the public and private interest. Other cases have occurred in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru or Costa Rica, as documented below. 

Among these experiences and reforms, some academic innovation schemes, concepts, policies and programmes that facilitate a new wave of change in higher education in the region have been presented. They are based on the discussion of what is known as a new transformation agenda3, in view of the involvement of universities in the context of what is happening in the character and orientation of their governments. 

Fortunately, there are many, and in several cases emblematic examples that represent the effort to transcend traditional university models from different options. In this chapter, given the length of this work, we have selected some of the most significant cases (in alphabetical order): 

  • Argentina: Perhaps the country that has focused most attention on the creation of new state-subsidized public universities, and that has defended and legislated around the concept of public good. In just a few years, this has been reflected in the creation of nine national universities, both within and outside Greater Buenos Aires, including the expansion of subsites of the emblematic University of Buenos Aires (UBA), with 12 regional centres (in areas of high deprivation), and the remaining centres within the country. It is worth noting that they are the forerunners of a new decentralization scheme, especially in the provinces of Cordoba, San Luis, Entre Rios, among others. 
  • Brazil: 18 new universities and HEIs are being promoted under a scheme of state innovation and responsibility. These include the University for Latin American Integration (UNILA) and the Afro-Brazilian University, with structures and academic offerings as well as strategic direction for this country, fundamental to disrupting the vision of the traditional university that transcends its own references. Furthermore, from 2011, under the government of President Ignacio (Lula) da Silva, there was an outstanding increase in the number of public universities (60), with emphasis on the creation of state institutions without devaluing federal ones, such as those mentioned. This fact is particularly important as traditionally in Brazil there was a predominance of private offer. 
  • Colombia: Also with the goal of expanding coverage levels, in a country with a high concentration of private universities, Regional Higher Education Centres (CERES) have been promoted with a public-private form of organization and financing, as well as under a hybrid model combining the classroom with virtual education located in areas of low coverage by traditional HEIs or large private universities. By 2012, the country already had 176 of these centres, with more than 30,000 students enrolled. Since 2014, Colombia no longer has a predominantly private system of higher education, and now the public sector accounts for slightly more than 50% of enrolment. 
  • Ecuador: Following the enactment of the Organic Law for Higher Education (LOES), major changes in the higher education system have been promoted by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (SENESCYT). Four new flagship universities have been created, the National University of Education (UNAE), the Amazon Regional University (IKIAM), the University of the Arts (UNIARTES) and the Experimental Research Technological University (YACHAY), all of which are now operating. With regards to promoting a transformation model, Dr. Rene Ramirez, Ecuador’s Secretary of Higher Education, Science and Technology said in 2010: “Since 2008, in Ecuador the government has led publicly challenged criticism and proposals for Ecuadorian universities, thus initiating a process of unprecedented transformation in the higher education sector since the return to democracy in 1979”. 
  • Mexico: Although for decades the Mexican state did not contribute to the creation of new federal universities, a number of ‘dual’ federal-state financial institutions have been set up, including the Autonomous University of Mexico City and the University of the Ciénega in Michoacan, as alternative models promoted and sponsored by their local governments. At the level of public policy, the last two Mexican governments have promoted the creation of state-owned HEIs of an intermediate type and funded through a hybrid system (federal-state-private), known as technological universities, polytechnics, state technological institutes or intercultural universities. Also, the most important federal and autonomous universities have promoted the creation of alternate venues, such as sub-campuses or extensions, as is the case of the UNAM, IPN, University of Guadalajara, and others. It is also worth mentioning the creation of the National Open and Distance University, which is undergoing a restructuring to expand its coverage and quality levels. The outlook for 2018 is to create 69 universities of an intermediate type (technical), 30 new campuses as an extension of consolidated universities, and four federal universities; although it is still unclear what kind of organizational model will be applied. It is anticipated, however, as has already occurred in the creation of the abovementioned intermediate institutions, that their funding models will be a mix of public and private funds. 
  • Paraguay: Traditionally, this country only had one university. However, by the end of the last century, seven universities had been created in the country to respond to the growing demand for higher education. This, in turn, led to remarkable growth in the private university sector, as has also occurred in other countries in the region. 
  • Peru: Since the beginning of this century, 21 public universities have been created in this country, but the growth of private supply has also been constant. In 2012, a moratorium was decreed to suspend the growth of public institutions in order to rethink policies in the sector and redefine the regulatory framework for a new stage. 
  • Uruguay: As in Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean and Central American countries, for decades there was only one university in Uruguay, which was considered ‘the bastion of higher education’ and the creator of sectoral policies, the iconic University of the Republic. With the new century, a new institution was created, the Technological University of Uruguay (2013), and there are discussions about creating a new public university in a country where, like Argentina and Cuba, there is a strong predominance of the public among the private. 
  • Venezuela: The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela, in a highly controversial move at university level concerning the relationship between quality and quantity, decided to boost the wide regionalization and creation of university and non-university campuses, so that by the beginning of this century it had 232 HEI campuses and extensions, of which 59 were located in the urban area of the city of Caracas. However, enrolment in private HEIs reached 77% of the total. To expand coverage levels, University Villages, Territorial Polytechnic Universities and 20 new universities were created throughout the country, all of them public, as part of a strategy that focused on the ‘universalization’ of the gross enrolment ratio (TBE). Of note among the new universities created are the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, the Film University and the University of the Armed Forces, which by 2010 had around half a million students enrolled. Between 2012 and 2013, five more state universities were created and in 2014 there were plans to create four new Territorial Universities in other states. 

This overview of important changes, in some cases national, is undoubtedly incomplete, because it should include the three universities that are being developed in Bolivia, or many of the new headquarters of national universities, or joint integration projects that are foreshadowing a new scenario. These may include the impressive multinational efforts of the AUGM or UNASUR in higher education, science and technology – evidence that the region is entering a new period of institutional, academic and social construction and innovation that ties in with the idea of a ‘Latin American knowledge society’ or a ‘common space of knowledge’, in the perspective of an emphasis on the social good of studies and university research. 

In this debate there have been important university events and new institutional formations, because despite the terrible circumstances that threaten our countries, in the cases addressed here significant changes and innovations to create new HEIs are being promoted, with a renewed interest in applying and qualifying the basis of research, the endogenous production of knowledge and its relationships with systems of scientific and technological innovation. 

This is the debate that is presented in this paper, in a comparative, local and global presentation of the most relevant trends of change that are taking place in key countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

[Reduced version of the original article. Full version available on open access next March 2017 here]


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya