Diversity Between Higher Education Institutions: The Cases of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay


In this article the author explores the evolution of tertiary educational institutions in three South American states, including non-university options along with their systemic differences and similarities and their contributions to higher education in the region.

Diversity and Diversification in South America

Over the last few decades, different social and production needs have given rise to new types of higher education institutions outside the university sector. This process of diversification has led to an increase in education alternatives and a re-conceptualization of higher education beyond the scope of universities.


The higher education landscape within most countries has changed as a result of institutions’ growing diversification. Many of the ‘new’ providers have been built on the foundations of earlier models with limited research traditions (e.g. teaching and technical schools) and have a ‘specifically regional mission’ (OECD, 2007, p. 36). The early stages of the diversification process were strongly influenced by the French system of écoles normales supérieures, which served as a model for the establishment of escuelas normales or teacher-training colleges. Such institutions spread rapidly throughout the region from the second half of the 19th century onwards, particularly in Peru, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay (Ávalos, 2003; OEI, 2003).


The first technical and vocational institutions were introduced in South America in the early 20th century through the adaptation of the Spanish escuela de artes y oficios or school of arts and trades, which has a long tradition in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Uruguay (Sánchez, 2007: Salazar, 2005).


More recent inspirations for South American technical and vocational institutions include the French instituts universitaires de technologie, American community colleges and the Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system (Bernasconi, 2006; Ruiz, 2009).


The development of alternatives to universities within the higher education sector has been criticized for the highly segmented nature of these options, their varying quality, and professional relevance of the programs. Other problems include institutional instability, lack of orientation, excessive heterogeneity, lackluster internal organization of the system, saturation of areas of study, and the disproportionate number of institutions (Bernasconi, 2006; Castro and Levy, 1997; De Wit et al., 2005).


At the same time, certain qualitative and reputational aspects of the sector’s emergence are worth noting. The technical-vocational institutions in particular have not traditionally been — and are still — far from being considered an alternative to university. On the contrary, they are generally viewed as a less prestigious form of higher education. This negative connotation appears to be related to a division of labor whereby technical and practical work is associated with the working classes. Thus, while universities have been opened up to the masses, they have nevertheless retained their reputations as elite institutions.


The following descriptive analysis includes the exploration of the non-university sector of the selected systems which specifically comprises the Argentinean ‘Higher Education Institutes’, the Chilean ‘Technical-Professional Institutions’ and the Uruguayan ‘Tertiary Non-University Institutions’, using the original name given by each regulatory framework.

Argentinean Higher Education Institutions
The Argentinean higher education system explicitly distinguishes between two subsystems of higher education comprised by the university institutions (made up of universities and university institutes) and the higher education institutes (including teacher-training and equivalent institutes, as well as artistic and technical-professional institutes).


Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, the system began to undergo a major transformation driven by mass enrollment and institutional diversification. “During this period, several public and private institutions—of both a university and non-university nature—were created, expanding and diversifying the academic offer (Marquis and Martinez, 1992, p. 81)."


The rationale behind this change in the system derived from a process of so-called ‘modernization’ based on the idea that higher education should offer alternatives in keeping with the changing needs of the labor market. In this context, the regionalization of national public universities was crucial to resizing universities in order to decentralize, improve operations, and politically depolarize the populations of the largest institutions.


This trend continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and increased enrollment resulted in further growth of higher education institutions (Marquis and Toribio, 2006, p. 18). In the 1990s, the diversification process was given new emphasis due to the creation of a large number of institutions with different levels of quality.


Historically, in the 1970s and 1980s, the offer from outside the university sector was mainly geared towards training middle- and primary-school teachers. However, over the following two decades, an offer — not covered by universities—emerged that was aimed at training qualified employees for the service sector. Several institutions with this orientation offered programs in areas such as design, computer science, tourism, management and trade (Fernández, 2003).


“Non-university institutions — mainly private ones — have seen the highest growth rates in recent years. Most of the courses offered are geared towards meeting the labor market’s current needs. The offer has thus focused on short technical programmes that give students the option of pursuing further studies upon completion and earning a degree (Villanueva, 2007, pp. 18-19)."


In this regard, the literature (Jallade, 1998; Sigal and Freixas, 1998) explains that the initial lack of planning and organization in the institutional diversification process, evidenced by excessive supply, academic programs unsuited to labor market needs, and vaguely worded institutional objectives, led to a heterogeneous and weakly articulated system.


In 2005, the Ministry of Education drafted a framework agreement for the humanistic, social and technical-vocational areas of the so-called ‘non-university sector’ (Acuerdo Marco para la Educación Superior No Universitaria Res. Nº 238/05). The agreement established an institutional and organizational structure for the non-university sector consisting of guidelines for planning the offer, institutional development and management. It moreover laid down criteria for curricular organization, including definitions of institutional target groups, professional profiles and occupational areas, types of qualifications, and program lengths.


The agreement states that ‘the subsystem [is] composed of non-university higher-education institutions devoted to teacher training and artistic, humanistic, social and technical-professional (vocational) education. It has the following basic functions: to provide training for teachers at the non-university levels of the education system; to provide comprehensive advanced scientific and technological training; and to provide training in humanistic social and technical-vocational fields related to local and national culture and production with a view to raising living standards’.

Chilean Technical-Vocational Institutions
In Chile, the regulatory framework explicitly distinguishes between different types of higher education institutions: universities, vocational institutions and technical training centers (Law No. 18,962).


In the early 1980s, the military government initiated a set of reforms geared towards privatization that completely changed the system’s configuration. The most radical transformation of higher education ever undertaken in the region followed (Holm-Nielsen et al., 2005). As a result, the state took on a subsidiary role oriented towards defining the framework in which private initiatives and intermediary bodies would operate. This situation led to a transition from an education system in which all levels of education were under state control to a highly privatized system governed by market forces (Bernasconi, 2005; Brunner 1997; Levy, 1986).


Since 1981, the primary change in the higher education landscape has been the creation of two types of institutions—professional institutes and technical training centers—with a view to expanding the system to meet both the increasing demand for higher education and the labor market’s changing needs (Bernasconi and Rojas, 2004; Brunner, 1986). The main role of these reforms was to introduce alternatives to universities and to deflect part of the growing demand for university studies (Salazar, 2005). As a result of this scenario, the vocational training previously provided outside the sphere of higher education was upgraded.


This diversification process was accompanied by the authorization to create private universities. The explosive unregulated growth of providers in the first 15 years following the reforms spawned significant criticism with regard to the need for minimum standards of quality and stability in the system (Brunner, 2009). In response, the state gradually rolled out official mechanisms and regulations designed to increase its control over the authorization and evaluation of new institutions (Bernasconi and Rojas, 2004; Salazar, 2005).


Between 1981 and 1990, ‘public subsidies were cut by 40% and universities were required to make up the difference through tuition fees’ (Bernasconi, 2005, p. 38). At the same time, the number of institutions in the system skyrocketed from a total of eight universities to 302 universities and technical-vocational institutions.


One of the main obstacles faced by the development of the technical-vocational offer has been — and remains — the lack of articulation and ability to transfer credits within the system, particularly in the university sector. This problem can be seen in the absence of systematic mechanisms to facilitate the approval of studies and/or transfers between different types of institutions (Salazar, 2005).


Today, the system is characterized by an absence of the free, public mega-institutions found in other South American countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, and by the fact that the state is not involved in all types of higher education.

Uruguayan Non-University Tertiary Institutions
Uruguayan regulations establish several modalities of higher education in two different sectors: universities and non-university tertiary institutions. However, unlike in Argentina and Chile, where each type of institution is identified beyond the umbrella term, there is no formal reference to the types of institutions that comprise the non-university offer.


Upon reviewing the general descriptions of the formal and informal systems, as well as the historical background of the component institutions, one can assert that the Uruguayan higher education system is driven by at least four deep-seated traditions, which form the core of how it is structured:
1) The ingrained understanding of universities as a synonym for higher education. Between 1833 and 1985, Uruguay had an official mono-institutional university offer. This offer was monopolized by the public Universidad de la República (University of the Republic, UDELAR), which was — and still is — able to offer academic degrees for graduate and postgraduate programs, as well as all other types of advanced qualifications and certifications, and could be characterized as a politically autonomous, national macro-university.


Landoni (2007, p. 184) notes that the influence of UDELAR and its capacity to absorb the demand for university studies can be explained by the country’s relatively small population, which helped to sustain the public monopoly until the mid-1980s. “The Universidad de la República had a monopoly on the country’s university studies and tertiary education except for teacher training. Thus, higher education and tertiary education have been portrayed as synonymous with university education (Pebé and Collazo, 2004, p. 2)."


2) The dominant role of the state. According to statistical data from 2009 (MEC, 2011), the public sector accounts for 87% of higher education enrollment today. Moreover, this offer makes up the National Public System of Tertiary Education, which does not include private institutions. Higher education in Uruguay tends to be restricted to the distinction between public and private in a regulatory framework that does not include the concept of a national system of higher education. Accordingly, the local literature tends to refer to institutional diversification when discussing the emergence of private universities because the financing criterion (public or private) is understood to be the indicator of institutional type.


3) Deregulation and autonomy. The Uruguayan system is characterized by a combination of state control and a high degree of institutional autonomy. Public institutions have greater autonomy than private ones (mainly universities and university institutes), which can voluntarily ask for official recognition in a system that, unlike Chile’s or Argentina’s, lacks a formal accreditation mechanism.


4) Unclear understanding of the national system. Local authors (Landoni, 2007; Marrero and Barros, 2005; Pebé and Collazo, 2004) doubt whether it is even possible to talk about a national higher education system in Uruguay, due to the lack of interdependence of the different entities. This, in turn, is due to the small size of the Uruguayan higher education sector, which is mainly dominated by public providers with no affiliation to private institutions.

System Features
In the studied cases, student enrollment at non-university institutions between 2000 and 2009 increased as compared to enrollment in the system as a whole (two percentage points in Argentina, five in Chile, and four in Uruguay), exhibiting growth throughout the last decade.

Figure 1. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay: Student Enrollment Outside the University Sector in 2000, 2005 and 2009
Figure 1
Source: Own elaboration based on data from DINIECE, Anuarios Estadísticos 2000, 2005 and 2009 (Argentina); SIES, Compendio Estadístico Global 1983-2009 (Chile); and MEC, Anuarios Estadísticos 2000, 2005 and 2009 (Uruguay).
*Institutions run by the armed forces were not included for any of the countries analyzed. Only higher education institutions coordinated by the respective ministries of education were included.

In Argentina, 95% of the higher education institutions are found outside the university sector, in Chile, 66%, and in Uruguay, 45%. However, the high number of providers is not a sign of a high concentration of students. In each case, total enrollment in this offering is lower than in the university sector. In Argentina, higher education institutions account for 27% of all system enrollment; in Chile technical-vocational institutions account for 34%; and in Uruguay the tertiary non-university sector accounts for 22% (DINIECE, 2009: MEC, 2009; PSU, 2009; SIES, 2009; SIES, 2010).


In general, the level of enrollment in this sector has increased over the last decade, with the most dramatic expansion taking place in Chile, which saw 125% growth between 2000 and 2009. Over the same period, the number of students in Argentina increased by 49% and the number of students in Uruguay by 63%. All three systems show a trend towards continuous growth of the technical-vocational student population. This notwithstanding, in Argentina and Uruguay, enrollment at teacher-training colleges has fallen.

In accordance with the official descriptions of the respective systems, the literature in Argentina and Chile characterizes diversity in terms of institutional profiles (that is, with regard to the core role played by each institution, mainly based on the type and level of its programs). Both countries make a clear distinction between higher education sectors and types of institutions. In Uruguay the situation is different. Institutional diversity tends to be characterized by the public/private dichotomy. Hence, diversity is presented in terms of the private or public nature of the offer.


The ways in which diversity is understood vary among national systems that do not necessarily show a clear understanding of institutional diversity. In Argentina and Chile, the regulatory framework offers an umbrella description of each institutional type, including names for each type of provider and formal institutional features, such as the type and level of the programs, the fields of study covered and the type of institution. This is not the case in Uruguay. To explore the types of institutions in the Uruguayan system, each institution’s formal structural features must be reviewed individually.


Accordingly, Argentina can be said to have a multi-type system in which the different institutional types are interrelated. The Chilean case more closely resembles a two-type system, consisting of universities and technical-vocational institutions, entailing the co-existence of academic and vocational sectors (in this case it is poorly articulated). In contrast, the Uruguayan landscape can be said to follow a stratified model due to the high degree of institutional diversity.

These common experiences derive from a gradual deregulated transition to stabilization and control that is at different stages of development and consolidation in each country. However, recent developments in higher education institutions outside the university sector show certain trends in common, including:
a) A level of student enrollment that accounts for around 30% of the system;
b) Increasing emphasis on the design and implementation of new policies to reinforce inter-institutional articulation and credit transfers within the system as a whole;
c) The consolidation of technical-vocational education as a needed alternative to universities in policy-level discourse;
d) The configuration of more complex and specialized mechanisms for coordinating the system that takes into account the specific features of each institutional type;
e) The enhancement of information systems.
The establishment of types of institutions outside the university sector has expanded the makeup of the student population, as well as students’ motivations and professional profiles, triggering strong changes in higher education supply and demand and consolidating institutional diversity as one of the main change agents in contemporary higher education systems.



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About the author

Natalia Orellana holds a Master degree in Higher Education at the International Centre of Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at University of Kassel (Germany), a Licentiate Degree in Communication Sciences from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (Chile) and postgraduate studies on University Leadership from the University of Oldenburg (Germany) and Organizational Communication from the Universidad Pompeu Fabra (Spain).

Currently, she is a GUNi collaborator and researcher at the Organization for Higher Education, Cooperation, Research and Development (OCIDES) which is responsible for the inter-institutional forum named “Bienal de Educación Superior y Mundo del Trabajo (BIESTRA)” in Chile.

e-mail: natalia.orellana@ocides.org


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