Is higher education an agent of social transformation?
Higher education produces and distributes society’s most important knowledge, and today this knowledge can serve as the basis for equitable and competitive social development. What do I mean by that? In order for an economy to be competitive, it must be based on technical progress and production, and it must stop trying to compete on the basis of low wages, the predatory use of natural resources, and inflation, which have been the classic resources, at least in Latin America. We want genuine competitiveness based on decent jobs, with lots of added value in production and good wages; that’s education.
We also need thoughtful citizens who are capable of making decisions consciously. A genuinely competitive economy and a strong democracy require high-quality education and knowledge that is available to everyone. Higher education plays a major role in this, because it is universities that train scientists and technical experts, that develop knowledge, and that educate the political elite, secondary-school teachers and sometimes also primary-school teachers. Today their role is more important than ever, because knowledge today plays a different part in social transformation than it did in the past, so it seems to me that universities indeed need to fill this role.
What policies can be introduced to level the playing field and ensure that poor people have access to higher education?
Policies aimed at levelling the playing field consist of two major elements, the first being secondary school. Today, secondary school is a selective educational level, and many students from disadvantaged families find themselves excluded from it. We need to change this, in order that all students may finish secondary school. To do so, we need more grants and good, well-equipped schools that offer young people access to facilities that they do not have at home or in their communities.
The second element is the economy and education. In Argentina today—and I imagine even more so in other countries—a very large percentage of higher education students belong to the first generation of their families to attend university or another form of tertiary education. This is why equity policies address material concerns: grants, infrastructure, facilities, access to new technologies, etc. We also need to work on aspects that are more subjective, not just material. We have to make sure that young people from poor families can make life plans that include higher education. These young people are sometimes unable to plan their lives more ambitiously than what their material conditions allow or what their families have transmitted to them. So we also need to work on this more subjective side of students, and make sure that their teachers are confident in their ability to learn. In terms of compensatory policies, I repeat, both levels—material and symbolic—are important.
Why does Argentina have one of the region’s highest enrolment rates?
Historically, Argentina has had greater social-equality traditions and policies than other countries in Latin America. Argentina made primary education compulsory in 1884. Our compulsory primary school became an important symbol of social inclusion. Certain policies allowed the growth of the middle classes, and those classes then began to demand greater education. And in spite of all the policies, and the attempts to prevent overcrowding and access, the social demand was always very high, and this prevented—or at least neutralised—all of the political attempts to reduce access, marginalise, etc.
In any case, we are not yet satisfied. We believe that we must continue to expand access. We want to further increase our enrolment rates, and also take steps to greatly improve efficiency. A very high percentage of young people begin higher education but do not graduate. We want to be comparable to more developed countries. That’s why we’re now taking major steps to award more grants and build new universities. Our hope is that educational expansion will serve as a pillar of a more just society. We’re working towards that.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcript of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.