The new agenda for the transformation of higher education in Latin America


In this article, Axel Didriksson presents, from an analytical and programmatic perspective, the existing debate for a new agenda of transformation of higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean by analyzing its main features and components.


Resolving the urgent need for a new form of development founded on equality and sustainability in Latin America and the Caribbean is strongly dependent on the outcome of strategic decisions currently being taken with regard to public policies on higher education, science and technology, and on the stances that governments adopt regarding participation in the creation of new knowledge platforms and learning experiences.

This view was expressed and universally supported (by more than four million representatives of higher education institutions) in one of the documents forming the basis of discussion at the UNESCO Regional Conference on Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (Gazzola and Didriksson, 2008), held in the city of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, in 2008, and in the conclusions reached at the Regional Conference and those outlined in the final communiqué of the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, held in Paris, France, in 2009.

According to these outcomes and conclusions, the past decade has seen some twenty academic, institutional and legislative reforms (some of them at national level) that, in one way or another, have had – and continue to have – a bearing on the construction of a new agenda for discussion between universities, education ministries and government departments. This agenda addresses reforms in five crucial organizational areas that underpin the substantive functions of universities and higher education institutions:

a)      In the adoption of policies aimed at achieving greater social coverage, to combat existing inequalities of access to and permanence in higher education, to integrate traditionally excluded sectors of the population through affirmative and compensatory programmes; and in the broader provision of economic incentives to remain in higher education, through more extensive grant and scholarship systems, the more indirect channel of education credits, or the creation of new institutions.

b)      In course offerings, through the creation of new degrees, training and re-training for teaching staff, and improvements to educational and cultural infrastructure designed to enhance the quality of studies.

c)      Through investment in new educational technologies, better connectivity, and a general increase in the use of computers and the Internet to facilitate virtual learning environments; the general adoption of on-line courses and programmes, and the organization of working teams to produce critical appraisals of how these new technologies are used and implemented.

d)      Through discussion and development of national laws and legal instruments on higher education, specific constitutional or regulatory reforms, and the implementation of legislative changes governing accreditation and assessment bodies in higher education.

e)      Through the emergence of new actors, predominantly from the student community, that challenge the old agenda on higher education, which imposed a trend toward privatization and commercialization, fostered a market-driven approach that raised tuition fees, reduced the responsibility of the State in guaranteeing the provision of higher education as a public good, and increased levels of social inequality in gaining access to the benefits of universal higher education.


In countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela, notable examples are emerging of a renewed debate over the issues described above (cf. Didriksson and Lara, 2012), reflected in reforms to improve or redefine aspects related to higher education assessment mechanisms, tuition fees, curriculum and syllabus planning, and course offerings. Recent years have also seen renewed interest in building a more extensive and better qualified research base and in endogenous knowledge production and its links to scientific and technological innovation systems (Escotet et al., 2010; Sagasti, 2011).

Student movements such as those seen in Chile (2011-2012), Puerto Rico (2011-2012), Colombia (2011) and, most recently, Mexico, have revealed a qualitative shift in the way the sector’s demands concerning policies and regulations and the dominant trend of the traditional education agenda are presented: demonstrations have moved beyond the institutional sphere to become national movements with enormous media and social impact. In Chile, this movement began with the students of the “penguin revolution” and led to widespread university protests in 2011 and a series of actions that continued throughout 2012. Other examples include the series of strikes and walk-outs at the University of Puerto Rico against rising fees and the increased cost of higher education, which were repeated throughout 2011, or the situation in Colombia, where the reorganization of a national student movement paralysed the proposed reform of Higher Education Law 30 of 1992 (2011-2012), which paved the way for privatization of the higher education sector. In Mexico, in the build-up to the 2012 federal elections, the student population broke with the passive approach it had adopted in the wake of the drawn-out nine-month strike at the UNAM in 1999 and established the vociferous #YoSoy132 protest movement.

In other cases, such as Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, the debate over a new agenda for higher education has also raised a huge amount of interest in university communities and has reached into other sectors of society and national politics. The Ecuadorian government passed its reformed Organic Law on Higher Education (LOES, 2010) in the face of a strong university movement, which led to a complete overhaul of public policies on higher education in the country; in Venezuela, a draft bill on higher education was blocked by the Executive on the grounds of the constitutional illegality of many of its articles, which had been roundly rejected by students and academics; in Brazil, a series of affirmative programmes for minority groups and traditionally marginalized sectors of society have been trialled and put into general practice, and major steps have been taken to improve postgraduate study (particularly at doctoral level) and scientific research.

Through these experiences and reforms, we are witnessing a constant stream of new models of academic innovation, new concepts, new policies and new programmes that point to a phase of change in higher education across the region; this phase is built around the debate over the new agenda of transformation, from the perspective of university participation in changes that are being seen in the nature and priorities of national governments.

This paper addresses the specific terms and proposals that, from the analytical perspective of the author, constitute the programmatic manifestations of the trends and movements described above and stem – directly or otherwise – from the general currents of regional thought that were laid down as a conceptual guide for policymaking and initiatives planning during the UNESCO Regional Conference on Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (Colombia, 2008).

This work is not intended to be a bibliographic or empirical study (such papers are already available and are listed in the references) but instead aims to present the features and components that make up this new debate from a more analytical and programmatic perspective.


The context of change


The activities of the most significant core of organizations in the higher education system of Latin America and the Caribbean – the public universities – have been shaped by a long period of transition, crises and brief moments of recovery that reflects a region in which the harshest conditions of inequality and poverty prevail, with pronounced shortcomings at every level of organization and a high degree of academic obsolescence and institutional traditionalism. The universities are also affected by intermittent and ever-decreasing economic and social investment and by limited infrastructure that is slow to be renewed, yet they remain obstinate in their continuing demands for more of the resources to which they are entitled, in order to maintain their support for innovation and the organization of learning platforms that push the boundaries of the most diverse and complex areas of knowledge.

This situation has generated widespread poverty across the region that affects over 200 million people, 88 million of whom exist in conditions of extreme poverty, accounting for more than a quarter of the total population. The latter part of the last century witnessed a series of economic crises that left the legacy of the “lost decades”[1],which were followed by more recent problems, such as the 2009 crisis, that have only compounded the terrible conditions endured by millions of human beings, the vast majority of them children and young adults.


[1] “Indeed, following the failure of the Structural Adjustment Progams implemented in the region by the IMF and the World Bank during the 1980s, the nineties were the scenario for a certain degree of economic recovery that did not, however, alter the trend of increasing poverty in absolute terms, while relative poverty fell by only 5 points over the period 1990-1997, ending the decade at a figure of approximately 43 per cent of the population. At the same time, Latin America continued to be the most unequal region in the world, with participation of the wealthiest quintile some 10-16 times higher than the poorest quintile.” (Bonal, 2006: 11).


The dominant current of globalization for the benefit of certain powers and nations, presented as a unilateral discourse that has become part of the collective imagination of the new century, imposed new asymmetries and conditions that, far from empowering the development of local capabilities for the creation and diffusion of knowledge and increasing the potential for equitable development, brought new constraints and weakened local powers.


In the early part of the XXI century, within the framework of what was imagined to be a current of all-encompassing globalization, universities in the region adopted an approach based on replicating models perceived to be “modern” or “world-class”, the foundations of which were as follows:

a) During the eighties and nineties, higher education reforms were based around deregulation of the State, institutional decentralization, and fragmentation into multiple types of institutions of differeing quality, predominantly due to the increased presence of private and commercial offerings and the influence of demand-driven economistic paradigms.

b) Instruments, mechanisms and organisms for the accreditation, assessment and control of different areas of university systems (programmes, sectors, people and institutions) were widely adopted by ministries and outside the government, in an effort to boost quality levels through a focus on products and results. New models of internationalization were adopted that drew heavily on the spirit of the Bologna agreements of the European Union, while at the same time new transnational providers of on-line and virtual programmes began to grow in influence.

c) Efforts were made to change institutional structures and academic management to foster the growth of niches and segments of knowledge production and research with a more overt market focus. However, little progress was achieved (in a relative sense, of course) in the introduction of substantive reforms to the organization of research and postgraduate training, with a diversification of sources intended to produce major new contributions but a continuing reliance on Mode 1 scientific practice (Gibbons et al., 1997).

d) Social demand for differentiated educational offerings grew, with a largely negative impact on the public university, which found itself overrun. A certain amount of growth occurred in the area of polytechnic and technological institutions, but far greater expansion was seen in the private sector, which ultimately widened existing disparities through a downslide in schooling levels and higher drop-out rates and perpetuated the marginalization of the most commonly excluded sectors of society.

e) Reforms and innovations were introduced frequently, but they were generally highly specific, short-term measures, particularly those concerning the creation of new institutions, changes to degree structures and knowledge areas, largely unsuccessful attempts to increase the volume and impact of research and development activities, the launch of new publications, the increase of postgraduate offerings and introduction of good practices (accompanied by “bad practices), and a failure to break the cycle of conservative, bureaucratic and politically motivated mechanisms.

f) Provision of State funding declined, and degrees in traditional subjects and disciplines multiplied, saturating the market and the associated professions, and perpetuating the use of the Mode 1 university model (Gibbons et al., 1997).

g) Frequent reference was made to emblematic international developments, which were viewed as “model cases” from various perspectives: the European Union and the “Bologna process”; joint proposals by UNESCO, the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; the emergence of powers responsible for major educational and university innovations (above all in the field of technologically-focused higher education) in the Asia-Pacific region; the models produced in countries with particularly strong development figures, which were seen to be the models produced in countries with particularly strong development figures, as South Korea, Singapore, Brazil, India, China, Finland, Sweden and South Africa in the global reorganization, particularly in terms of changes and reforms to their higher education systems and a growing capacity for international projection; and the debates over national legislation in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Chile or the processes of sub-regional integration in Central America (CSUCA), the Caribbean (UNICA), Cono Sur (AUGM), Mexico (TLC) and ALBA.

h) Systems of extraordinary remuneration for academic staff emerged alongside the development of hierarchical structures rewarding the academic merits, research results and training activities of “human resources”.

i) Certain countries showed an extreme tendency towards the growth of learning options offered by private providers, leading to greater mercantilization of the higher education system and higher tuition fees. The end result was to fragment the system still further.

j) Conflict emerged between the notions of higher education as a public good or as part of the corporate offering of a “global service”.


The traditional agenda pushed by the currents of excluding globalization can be characterized by the following trends and outcomes, which are now – as they must – coming under the microscope:


1. Despite the overall increase in enrolments across the Latin America and Caribbean region, universal access to tertiary education remains the preserve of only the most developed nations, where rates fluctuate between 60 and 70 per cent of the corresponding age group, in the face of an average rate in the range of 18–30 per cent for Latin America as a whole (with some notable exceptions, such as Cuba). The disparity at postgraduate level is even more pronounced.


2. In a reflection of growing inclusion and equity, the nineties witnessed a huge increase in the number of people accessing higher education across the world and in most regions. Carmen García Guadilla reported the following data:

…from 1960 to 1995, the number of graduates in the whole world grew more than six times, passing from 13 million to 82 million (UNESCO, 1998). The expansion in the access to higher education in the sixties had a great relevance in the discussion agenda due to its social and political implications. In all regions of the world, and as of the beginning of the sixties, enrolment rates boosted upwards, especially in the developed countries. Europe with a 2.2% of enrolment rates in the sixties, moved to almost 40% in the middle nineties; and, the United States along with Canada, from a enrolment rate of 7.2% they reached almost an 80%. The non-advanced countries also showed an increase in their rates, from 1.3 to an approximate 7.8%, however there still exists a tremendous gap among the former and the latter ones. In Latin America the figures passed from 1.6% in the sixties to 18% in the nineties (García Guadilla, 2006: 181).

The growing number of young people of university age and the greater importance they are gradually being afforded have made their mass integration into university study a central theme of the new agenda for the transformation of higher education systems, where it is defined not simply as the process of accessing this level of education but as admission to a process of training in contemporary forms of knowledge production and transfer, meaningful knowledge and multiple, articulated areas of know-how built on social pertinence and relevance.

The decline in public resources and the growing privatization of education services (aimed at a population differentiated on the grounds of its capacity to pay) have undermined the capabilities of many countries to expand at a sufficient rate to meet rising demand. This is particularly true in the case of public institutions, which in most nations continue to form the largest and most influential collective in the sector. The situation is compounded by the on-going brain drain and by continuing disparities in access to successful, uninterrupted periods of university study, which are exacerbated by factors such as membership of an indigenous group, mother tongue, gender, physical disability, and geographical difficulties.


3. The neoliberal character of many governments in Latin America and the Caribbean suggests that change, expansion and improvements in university quality and innovation have not been driven by the State but rather, in many cases, by the will of the higher education institutions themselves or on the basis of policies aimed at satisfying market requirements. This is particularly evident in the growing number of private institutions and the proliferation of major private providers at the national and international levels.

Such a scenario is not conducive to maintaining the central role of public higher education, which cannot be determined by market forces or private investment, given that social investments have a direct impact on levels of development and public welfare. Labour markets do not have a direct role in regulating graduate profiles, and tertiary education is closely tied to notions of national identity, social cohesion, confidence in public institutions, democratic participation, gender diversity, respect and support for ethnicity, and plurality of opinion. This freedom is greatly restricted by the drop in public funding for higher education and the ensuing decline in the associated social benefits.


4. However, alongside these concepts – which dominated the organizational logic of public policy in a greater number of countries, not least the nations of the Latin America and Caribbean region – an alternative conceptual and political structure was configured that has led to major global innovations and reforms with particular relevance to Latin America, where new arguments have been injected into regional debates.

The proponents of these arguments include authors such as Ricardo Petrella, Boaventura de Souza Santos, Immanuel Wallerstein, Michael Gibbons, Edgar Morin and Pablo González Casanova, to name some of those who have stressed the need for a critical stance on universities, as well as the dozens of representatives who contributed to the region-wide debate organized by UNESCO. Between them, they have constructed a body of ideas, proposals and initiatives founded on a new epistemic paradigm and an agenda of transformation that is vital to the definition of an alternative public policy for the countries of our region.


5. We must focus, therefore, on the constructs that lay the foundations for an alternative vision of higher education. The critical view on the manner in which States have established hybrid models of mercantilization is that universities must uphold three basic axioms in the exercise of their activities and social responsibility:

• scientific rigour in knowledge production and learning;

• ethical practice in academia and social criticism in response to the advance of science and technology; and

• commitment to the ongoing validity of their condition as a common and public good. (Petrella, 2003)


6. The starting point of the old paradigm was the mistaken conception of a form of development determined by economic and technical parameters built on growth of production, consumption and income, expressed in monetary and financial terms. This notion fell into crisis some decades ago, to be replaced by conceptual terms more closely related to human development and sustainability.

From this perspective, universities can no longer remain on the edge of social criticism of development models that promote inequality and the welfare of a tiny minority, destroying the fundamental conditions of human life and existence. The State must, therefore, in its role as a guarantor of sustainable human development, continue to demand academic rigour in university organization, particularly in three strategic areas, as defined by Petrella:

• Respect for life and the right to life, understood as respect for the development of alternatives for human rights in the face of the mercantilization of existence, the control of intimacy, individuality and dignity, the privatization of healthcare, and the indiscriminate use of genetic manipulation of foods and of the future of forthcoming generations.

• The foundations of social organization, the political domain and the local, national, regional and international economies, against the doctrine of single thinking, the irreversibility of dominant, excluding globalization, poverty, hunger and misery, marginalization and ignorance, and the theoretical and methodological paradigms from which justification for these phenomena is drawn.

• Respect for the development of alternative strategies for cooperation, community, the common good, rights for all, inter- and transculturality, security, citizen participation and its organization and representation in governments and States. (Petrella, 2003: 130-131)


7. A higher education institution that does not guarantee the components of these areas or develop solutions to their endangerment cannot claim to meet the requirements of social pertinence, quality and responsibility that are demanded of it.

As René Ramírez (2010) argues, the considerations outlined above should lead us to the notion of the university as an agent of social transformation; this, in turn, should be the springboard for efforts to build and consolidate a new agenda.


8. In the last decades, university systems have undergone processes of profound change in the relationships they maintain with the State and society. In our region, this has engendered a sequence of localized crises leading to two “lost decades”, reduced the responsibilities and duties of governments, provide fertile ground for the emergence of market-driven mechanisms for academic regulation, and perpetuated existing flaws in knowledge creation, learning and modern processes of scientific and technological development. This has been made possible by a lack of in-depth reforms to university structures, the insistence on a traditional model of commercialization of educational services, and the expansion of privatizing forces in the tertiary education system.

With the entry of Latin American and Caribbean nations into the channels of rampant, excluding globalization, renewed constraints were placed on the development of higher education and scientific research. This stalled efforts to reach goals of sustainability and welfare, turning countries in the region into vulnerable societies threatened by recurring structural deficiencies, widening gaps in science and knowledge, and the persistence of traditional inequalities. This made it far harder for the region to commit to paradigms of sustainable human development proposed by multilateral international organizations under the terms of the Millennium Development Goals, the Education for All movement, models of cooperation towards shared development built on equity and justice, or models related to human rights, peace, gender equality, and the eradication of poverty and discrimination.

However, in the first five years of the new century, education – in particular higher education – became the subject of renewed debate (following decades of relative quiet, and stretching beyond discussion of formal programmes announced by specific governments) over its role as a channel for “just and equitable development”, a mechanism for equality and inclusive modernization, for all that this has yet to produce positive indicators of social improvement.

In certain countries, although in unequal measure, new expectations have arisen in the political period that opened at the beginning of the XXI century with the emergence of democratic governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, El Salvador and in some major cities and regions of other countries (as is the case of Mexico City, to give one example). These experiences illustrate a different way of addressing strategies to reconcile university education with sustainability and democratic life, through the creation of new knowledge platforms with greater social pertinence.

In the context of these trends of governmental and social change, the major challenge for universities in Latin America is to concentrate their efforts on achieving equity, on overcoming the profound deficiencies that still exist, and on articulating change through reforms to course offerings and learning contents, to their approach to scientific and technological activity and the fundamental areas in which it is carried out, to the priorities that guide the allocation of resources, and to the pertinence of the education they offer, which is necessarily linked to the persistence of inequalities and exclusion in the context in which universities operate.

The priority for universities in the region is therefore to use this period of change to placed renewed focus on the universalization of schooling at all levels, introducing organizational and academic innovations to redefine the basic configuration of knowledge structures and learning contents. This process is placing considerable strain on education institutions and States alike, since its aim is not merely to open secondary and higher education to a broader section of society (given the rate of growth of the corresponding age groups) but also to pave the way for new learning experiences, social knowledge platforms, and cooperative skills and structures, to break the long-standing vicious circle of one-dimensional, linear, hierarchical learning that reflects the rigidity and classism with which education has traditionally been regulated.

The conditions in which this must be achieved are far from ideal and the resulting challenges enormous, and while they cannot be addressed on a purely local basis, neither is it possible to transpose them to a higher level of social organization without a new perspective on agreements over national and regional integration, linked to the new international division of knowledge. The narrow, nationalistic approach much be avoided, since isolated institutions cannot successfully fulfil their roles in tackling the great challenges of the future.

The logic of globalization, however, pulls in the opposite direction, undermining the potential for integration and cooperation by imposing a discourse populated with notions of economic and military force, global threat, and power founded on the commercialization and mercantilization of knowledge, rather than laying a path for solidarity and collaboration in resolving the problems of human risk and survival.


The terms of debate


The state of higher education in the region throws light on the levels of exclusion and inequality that exist[2] and the complexity that surrounds them, but it also points to possible remedies thatwill require the universities to recover their roles as centres of learning and agents of development and social responsibility.


[2] To quote one of the many authors to make reference to this: “Instead of contributing to progress, schooling is reinforcing poverty, perpetuating inequality and slowing economic growth. The problem is not access but rates of permanence…” (Arnove, 2006: 50).


The presentation of an alternative such as the one described above is a pressing need, since there is little time for the governments and principal actors in related sectors to put it into practice. The costs of ignorance, scientific and technological deficiencies, stagnation and social inequality will create conditions of severe risk and could be the trigger for a full-scale social and economic catastrophe. We are dealing, therefore, with a task that must be quickly and responsibly assumed by the current generation. For the coming generation, there will be other problems to face.

Action is required – and indeed is already being taken – to implement a strategy of university transformation that will facilitate the creation and empowerment of social capabilities in the countries of Latin America, with a view to producing and transferring endogenous scientific and technological knowledge at the national, regional and international levels.

Any initiative such as the one proposed here must acknowledge the primacy of structural change in higher education and its fundamental role in projects involving regional articulation and international cooperation. The underlying goal must be to strengthen ties and build synergies for academic collaboration, and this must be the guiding principle in the basic organization of any transformative process.

The development of an endogenous capacity to produce and transfer knowledge, and for its local, sub-regional, and regional empowerment, should be the central objective of new forms of cooperation. This will place local actors at the centre of designing and formulating proposals, programmes and projects for change, making them the primary actors in the transformation.

This scenario for achieving a new social recognition of the value of knowledge and learning can be considered one such alternative, because it shifts the focus to meeting the needs and demands of higher education institutions, which must use it as the starting point to plan new organizational structures that provide broader access to socially-relevant knowledge and to develop training processes that target the creation of a renewed and expanded intellectual sector.

The emerging process of university reform allows for the integration of different networks, the participation of communities in institutional democratization and in public life, and the generalization of new environments for lifelong learning. It marks a shift to a pedagogical and organizational model in which education is built on unity in difference, the construction of new objects of knowledge, reflection on the concepts of the other and the whole, the move towards self-learning schemes, and the recognition of diversity, interculturality and transculturality.

We are dealing with a change of paradigm in the way contemporary universities and conceived, moving towards an open organization in which multiple actors participate at different levels; a flexible, self-regulated model with a strong focus on social commitment and regional cooperation. The institutions in this new scenario produce and transfer knowledge to society in a process that is both complex, dynamic and differentiated but also highly interactive and articulated.

The organization of academic and scientific innovation demands greater efficiency and decentralization of decision-making by the State; it requires greater interaction between stakeholders, more extensive delegation of responsibilities and authority, and effective self-organization across a broad network of independent actors.

To fully define the role played by higher education institutions – in particular public universities – in fashioning new expressions of society, culture, social and economic relations, global interaction, local reorganization and change, and the creation of diverse and complementary sub-regional or regional blocks, we must engage in further debate of the issues raised at recent UNESCO events concerning the development of a “knowledge society” that places a new emphasis on learning and culture and strives explicitly to move away from the market-driven, individualistic educational model that fosters ignorance and exacerbates poverty and inequality.


The new agenda


We are in a new era characterized by a general reorganization of the various spheres of public political, social and economic life, channelled through the production and transfer of new knowledge and technology, particularly in the areas of information and communication technologies, biotechnology and, over the coming years, nanotechnology. One of the sectors most actively involved in this reorganization, but which also stands to suffer as a result of the changes, is education, because the tasks for which universities in particular are responsible are, more than ever before, directly related to the organization and quality of the science and technology system. Many of the factors on which the process hinges are in turn dependent on the higher education institutions, thanks to the knowledge they impart and organize, the complexity with which this work is carried out, and the scale and quality of what this generates for wider society. Higher education institutions are therefore set to play a fundamental role in the emergence of a knowledge society, especially if they are able to implement the radical changes required to traditional models of knowledge production, dissemination and application.

We must reflect, then, on the role that universities play and can go on to play in leading changes to higher education and learning at all levels, as part of region-wide development in Latin America and the Caribbean and growing participation in global debate.

We are currently in a situation of generalized risk. This outlook – intended to foster preventive action rather than alarm – clearly illustrates the need to focus debate on the underlying problems and the scope, nature and addressees of the changes that universities have the capability to drive, given their importance in knowledge creation and transfer, as we have seen above.

The matter is far from trivial; it concerns societies in which lives are permanently exposed to insecurity and to social, economic and environmental instability, due in great measure to underlying problems in the core area of university activity: the advancement of knowledge, science and technological innovation. Decisions concerning this activity often lack the necessary pertinence and do not ensure sufficient “neutrality” in scientific progress; the logic behind the decision-making process is often essentially racist, concerned with the pursuit of disproportionate profits and leading to the potential destruction of vital components in the life of our planet or great swathes of its population. Recent conflicts have seen a clear shift from military confrontation between armed forces to a more generalized threat to the conditions and potential survival of specific cultures and societies, with the civilian population becoming a primary target.

This scenario cannot be accepted by students in the region or indeed by the universities themselves; it must be given due consideration in the planning of new curricula and in the formulation of critical stances on issues of national and international importance. A society in which knowledge, science and technology form the core of an informed perspective on development cannot allow such conditions of extreme risk and instability to persist.

In the first decade of the new century, a new set of problems, concepts and debates has emerged, and the resulting changes are increasingly complex. The challenge concerns the construction of a new agenda for the transformation of public and institutional policies in certain countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

This new agenda for public policy stems from the same concept of “political decision-making” on the part of the State but envisages actions that bring together multiple actors, many of them traditionally marginalized from the shaping of genuine decisions or used simply for the purpose of political propaganda and in programmes that have not led to tangible improvements in organization or welfare or created the conditions for their involvement as equal citizens in the decision-making process. The new agenda is the expression of new values related to social and educational goals, knowledge and sustainability, and such an approach entails a new breed of intellectual and political responsibility.

Following decades of insufficient schooling and widespread inequality, it is becoming clear that certain national governments must foster greater inclusion of groups that have traditionally been marginalized, whether on the grounds of poverty and geographical separation from education centres or due to gender, race or other social factors. Specific programmes are needed to guarantee inclusion and success in academic study, examples of which have already been seen in Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Costa Rica, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, and in some countries in Central America.

There is also a clear need for policies to create a more homogeneous, standardized system that ensures greater quality, pertinence and social responsibility in university education, with the aim of preventing fragmentation and bringing greater clarity with regard to what each type of higher education institution is, how it operates, and what its principal objectives and functions are. It is equally important to promote greater flexibility and inter-institutional cooperation, student mobility and interdisciplinary learning and to embrace the potential of new knowledge areas and management structures that more closely resemble the “Mode 2” approach to university activity (Gibbons et al., 1997) linked to social innovation. Regulations should also be defined for national and international private university offerings.

Under the current process of “excluding globalization”, the emerging peripheries of knowledge societies drive development through autonomous intellectual activity that allows for problems to be studied and solved through social roots that would once have been unsalvageable or obsolete. This generates a process in which peripheral areas are consolidated as poles of local or regional excellence that achieve similar or more extensive progress than the established “centres” because they construct “new forms of knowledge”.

As knowledge becomes an increasingly prized but complex commodity, the State has a crucial role in developing an innovation system with broader social coverage, as do the universities themselves, which must introduce changes to organizational and academic structures to achieve greater levels of social impact, with a view to taking charge of innovation as demanded by society.

The prospective addition of innovation to the portfolio of university functions is one of the most significant forces for change that governments have the scope to address in public policies on higher education. This is not a reference to commercial innovation but to that distinct type of innovation concerned with society, community, culture, science and sustainability, accompanied by the production and dissemination of a new type of knowledge.



In summary, this new XXI-century agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean is founded on and builds from proposals, structures, processes and regulatory frameworks such as those described in the points below:

1. Higher education must be predominantly public, free, pertinent and socially responsible, assuming a role in national and regional integration, cooperation and solidarity and contributing to the establishment of dynamic networks that facilitate flows, creative synergies, joint courses courses, greater compatibility of academic credits and a general increase in educational mobility.

2. The knowledge produced and disseminated by universities should be oriented towards fighting poverty and inequality, reducing the gap between developed and less-developed nations, and strengthening the competitiveness and productivity of the region and of individual countries, through an approach built on new cooperative frameworks and co-responsibility with all social and educational sectors and stakeholders. The actors in this process must strive to train free-thinking, critical members of society, with the high-level skills and capacities to lead the broad consolidation of democracy and social transformation.

3. Universities must take an innovative approach to refreshing and building on their existing research capabilities, in particular by consolidating a strong scientific base, strengthening the research skills of postgraduate students and conducting more extensive research activities with other stakeholders outside the university setting. Most importantly, they must address with the utmost seriousness the phenomenon of brain drain and the mercantilist policies that convert knowledge into a private good.

4. Funding sources must clearly be diversified, but State budget allocations must also be made more extensive and more clearly oriented towards national and even regional priorities through multilateral cooperation initiatives, as described above.

5. Public policies on education must be built around the central goal of transforming the national system through measures that will facilitate the design and implementation of new pedagogical, scientific and technological models for a knowledge society that addresses the issues of equity, quality and sustainable human development. This will mean prioritizing tasks that target the elimination of long-standing deficiencies in the system, that raise levels of social coverage and quality across the whole of the national education and science sector, and that provide a platform for the creation of a system that will satisfy medium- and long-term needs.

6. Those sectors of the population that have traditionally been marginalized from the education system must be addressed in two groups: children aged between three and 14, and learners aged 15 and over. Formal, non-formal and informal learning strategies should be combined under a general curricular model that establishes dynamic connections between different learning environments and consolidates the educational process through the extensive use of information technologies, television, radio and the mass media.

7. Education for the over-15s must take a comprehensive approach to preparing learners for the world of work.

8. Effective plans must be established to guarantee increased permanence in the education system among learners in each age group, in line with projected rates of population growth. Particular efforts must be made to increase social coverage and support structures for learners in secondary and tertiary education.

9. Education at all levels must be made as widely accessible as possible.

10. As a specific goal, upper-secondary and tertiary education should be made universally accessible within a 10-year horizon.

11. Formal and non-formal educational services should be expanded, and national performance and permanence indicators should be increased across general schooling and higher education. This task is not exclusively educational, it also requires more generalized changes to social and economic structures and therefore requires the support of programmes in areas such as self-employment, social organization and civic governance.

12. A specific process for the reform and transformation of upper-secondary education is required, which should focus on creating a common educational space that provides leaners with the training to become effective workers and members of society capable of contributing to scientific and technological development. Secondary education providers must focus less on the dissemination of knowledge and more on their role in knowledge production and transfer, cultural diffusion, pertinence and social relevance. The pertinence of academic activity should be considered the key factor in assessing the quality of education at this level.

13. Science and technology must be institutionally acknowledged as strategic components in the articulation of a knowledge society built on democracy and welfare. This must be reflected in public policies on education and in the permanent provision of funding for strategic research.



The resulting concepts and ideas that form the ideological basis for the new agenda of transformation in higher education, and which will guide future discussion among stakeholders, include the following:

1. Higher education must be organized under a diversified, cooperative model that complements the multiple processes of learning, knowledge production, knowledge transfer and development of talent. Its objectives and activities should dovetail with regional and international priorities regarding the autonomy of higher education institutions and universities, the quality and pertinence of higher education, and the role of socially responsible institutions. As key actors in the education sector – the most crucial area for the generation and dissemination of social value – universities must strive to meet the objectives of a society that prioritizes the happiness and well-being of its citizens through universal identity, equity and progress.

2. The basic functions of this system are: a) to oversee the creation, development, transmission and critical appraisal of science, technology and culture; b) to prepare students for professional activities requiring specialized application of knowledge, methods and languages for scientific and artistic creation; c) to provide scientific and technical support for cultural, social and economic development at the national level and for specific indigenous communities and ethnic groups; and d) to foster the broader application and diffusion of university culture.

3. This new higher education system should be the subject of constant assessment and regulation by the State to ensure its compatibility with government objectives and strategies. By allying overarching national pertinence with the necessary academic freedom, institutional autonomy and diversity of models and structures, the system can successfully meet the demands of society and have a dynamic and responsible impact on development.

4. The regulatory framework governing the new interactive higher education system must uphold the ideal of education, learning and knowledge as a public good in the face of market-oriented demands, private and profit-driven interests, and the pressure to conform to external models perceived as offering a guarantee of high standards.

5. The academic structures that will shape the implementation of changes to the higher education system must be conducive to raising quality standards and to placing greater focus on vocational technical training as a complement to more purely academic undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral study, with a view to offering learners a more comprehensive education that will help them to become rounded human beings and members of society and to build on and perfect the knowledge and skills acquired at each level of schooling throughout the rest of their lives.

6. These academic structures must place an emphasis on knowledge, culture and capacities that offer students a meaningful educational experience based on three concepts: learning to know, that is, learning the requirements of a particular profession and acquiring solid disciplinary, transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary training as the foundation for continued learning throughout professional life; learning to be, or learning that fosters complete personal development, enabling students to acquire a sense of culture, aesthetic and humanistic sensibilities, a holistic understanding of the world in which they live and participate, communication skills, a capacity for social criticism and relationship-building, and access to economic mobility and welfare built on ethical values of solidarity and transculturality; and learning to become, the generic learning through which we are able to construct knowledge and devise solutions to future problems.

7. The structures of the new higher education system should facilitate broad harmonization across the region based on the following model: the first level (bachelor’s degrees and higher vocational training courses) will consist of a training period of four years; the second (master’s degrees) will require a further two years of study; the third level (doctoral degrees, PhD) will require three or four years of additional research training. Students should be given a degree of flexibility to work through these levels at a different pace and at one or more institutions, depending on the mobility options that are established in the coming years.

8. All registered higher education institutions and/or universities will have the opportunity to develop programmes of study along the lines of autonomy, pertinence and social responsibility. The new programmes will be subject to permanent evaluation (following initial approval, assessments every three-to-five years) through clear and efficient procedures (focused on core aspects of the curriculum and with the minimum of paperwork), seeking the views of the academic communities and establishing a consensus to apply the system for a given period of time.

9. The new academic structures must be geared towards meaningful learning and should enable governing bodies and teaching and research staff to organize their activity across multiple knowledge areas, to make the most of their talent and experience both as individual teachers and researchers and as collegial bodies. This will provide the basis for supporting students in defining and resolving learning problems and cognitive challenges that reflect their individual needs, interests and aspirations, contributing to the full development of their personal and academic potential and the acquisition of generic and specific knowledge and skills that are shared by other students and mutually recognized by universities across the region.

10. The new model will make for a more intense learning process: there will be a broad organization of the essential components of each course, but students will learn more and do so more effectively, because the diverse contents, methods, languages and techniques covered by the curriculum will be selected not on the basis of the knowledge that must be memorized but with a view to acquiring the right quantity of information and developing the intellectual procedures (methods, languages and capacities) and practical strategies to continue the learning process after graduation, in accordance with their subsequent interests and requirements. This will be reflected not only in the professional environment but also in people’s actions as citizens, in their sense of identity and responsibility as part of a crucial sector in the production and transfer of new knowledge. This makes it particularly important for teachers to use their knowledge and experience to help students develop the greatest possible degree of autonomy in their intellectual and practical work.

11. The new academic model must be designed in such a way as to avoid the fragmentation of knowledge across traditionally rigid disciplinary areas, which could be reflected in the organization and management of university teaching and research. Rather, efforts should be made to promote a more progressive form of knowledge management and training that can be continued beyond university life. Universities and third- and fourth-grade institutions should offer degrees and courses that foster broader training encompassing technical learning, culture and notions of citizenship, which can be extended and completed after graduation. This approach will help us to move away from narrower curricula that envisage the acquisition of knowledge and information applicable to a certain period and sphere, leading to multiple degree offerings. As such, a new focus must be placed on generalized integration and articulation of knowledge across traditional boundaries.

12. In this scenario, it is important to clearly define the type and scope of lifelong learning opportunities to be offered by HEIs, which will make it possible to design spaces for continuous training and re-training and for high-quality knowledge production at postdoctoral level. Universities must guarantee a fully diversified offer of lifelong learning options to enable students to achieve their training goals, restricted only by their own capacity, merits and willingness.

13. Academic credits and the system by which they are accumulated over the course of a degree will not be freely configured; a reasonable table of equivalences should been drawn up for degrees offered nationally, and even regionally or internationally. The focus should be placed on reflecting hours of work and establishing minimum levels required to meet specific learning objectives, rather than the simple accumulation of credits for class hours or supposed extracurricular activities. This requires a shift to a regulatory framework based on studying rather than teaching; in other words, a new learning paradigm in which the student takes the central role, and classroom and subject-specific work are no longer the only study options.

14. To construct this credit system, the new academic regime must transform existing assessment mechanisms to allow for tangible recognition of the social value of knowledge, rather than simply fostering the formal enrolment–graduation trajectory that takes students through their education.

15. This form of (internal) assessment must focus on success in achieving cognitive and learning objectives, moving beyond the traditional notion that examination must be based purely on providing correct answers to specific types of questions and exercises. A broad range of assessment options is required: depending on the content of the respective subject or module, evaluation will take into account participatory work in class and directed learning tasks (individual and collective); the use library and electronic reference resources; group and cooperative learning, through project work; creative use of information and communication technologies and multimedia resources; laboratory work, workshops and seminars; and on-line courses and other complementary learning activities.

16. University research must be guided by its function as a public and social commodity, serving to consolidate the identity of each institution and complementing the area of professional training. Work should generally be carried out in teams and academic groups and supported by basic funding irrespective of its basic or applied focus, with a realistic degree of flexibility in the management of budget allocations.

17. The collaborative nature of university research must be harnessed to create the conditions for effective training of future researchers and continual quality improvements among existing teaching and research staff. This must be the fundamental goal of doctoral programmes.

18. From a broader perspective, doctoral work must be redirected towards a greater focus on generating and transferring knowledge for social innovation and collectively beneficial economic development. Universities cannot be oblivious to these goals, and will gradually give them greater importance through the transparent exercise of their public responsibilities. This will mean establishing research objectives that are in the general interest of the population and disseminating results as fully and freely as possible.

19. Research that entails the transfer of knowledge to private companies should be housed in organizational spaces outside the university setting, with their own administrative structures and appropriate management structures.

20. To effectively regulate teaching and research careers, fixed categories must be established and applied to all staff, as a means of guaranteeing the stability of teaching and research activities. Continuous development must be a mandatory requirement for academic personnel, and salary scales must reflect the importance of qualitative improvement through activities such as postgraduate and doctoral study, training projects, research activity and cultural diffusion initiatives. The regulations governing access to academic careers must be established in a specific statute.




In their role as key institutions for economic, cultural and social development, universities are subjected to a weight of expectation that creates potentially limitless pressure, leading to the redefinition of policies and plans and an increasing number of programmes and initiatives aimed at establishing new organizational models.

These trends and outcomes reflect an interplay of scenarios over recent decades that has substantially altered our general understanding of what universities are, what they do, who they serve, how they should be governed, how quality should be measured, and what position they occupy in society.

However, the emergence of a global pattern of social, technological and economic development has also led to the creation of networks, cooperative structures and frameworks for regional and inter-institutional integration that can help to create the conditions for an alternative to institutionalized competitiveness and the logic of the dominant, market-driven model.

These considerations raise the possibility of creating a new scenario of university reform characterized by greater horizontal cooperation between institutions and sectors, which create network structures and community spaces for collaborative work, without relinquishing their institutional identities.


This emerging scenario of transformation in higher education – which targets the introduction of an alternative university model built on the production and transfer of knowledge with tangible social value and on academic organization with greater social pertinence – will require a networked, cooperative approach to the configuration of academic processes and structures that prioritize joint (or inter-institutional) projects, student and staff mobility, mutual recognition and comparability of courses and qualifications, shared use of resources and a greater concern for solidarity in the approach to education in the region. A set of shared educational values must be adopted in reconfiguring the structures and contents of academic disciplines, creating a platform for new skills and social capabilities that provide a link between new areas of knowledge and national or regional priorities, and fostering innovation with a view to dissipating social risks. It is a scenario reliant on more extensive participation of communities and increased diversification in the search for funding.

This notion of a university of innovation with social pertinence raises the possibility of an active and dynamic social institution dedicated to training highly-skilled knowledge producers and innovators, committed to and responsible for social change, democracy, peace and sustainable development; a university whose very organization is founded on the principle of social value in the knowledge it produces and transfers. This concern for social value it at the root of change and forms the basis of its educational processes, creating the profile of an institution that responds to the challenges of democratic transition and development for well-being.


Some final areas for reflection in relation to the design of short- and medium-term policies for achieving the scenario described above are as follows:

1. To address the dearth of resources in the region, it will be necessary to devise strategies of international cooperation through which to redefine existing asymmetries; such strategies should facilitate the transfer of knowledge, science and technology and the development of human and physical capabilities to create a productive sector fed by new knowledge and learning experiences. Relevant to this point – as a key factor in negotiations – is the gradual change in global demographics, which in the coming years will see further growth in the number of young people and young adults in Latin American countries with better higher education and technical qualifications. Failure to make the most of their potential could lead to enormous social loss, but as a social platform for learning with satisfactory rates of return this group could also be harnessed to fertilize local knowledge, as well as contributing to the advancement of international knowledge.

2. Universities must take charge of their own transformation in order to respond to new network structures and become platforms for interdisciplinary learning with high social value and for research directed at specific fields of application, maintaining a critical vision of society and a commitment to human development and sustainability.

3. Consideration should be given to building regional academic networks, launching extensive student mobility programmes (particularly at doctoral level), establishing joint postgraduate programmes and new degrees at the cutting edge of knowledge related to the most widespread problems in the region; fostering shared use of existing science and technology infrastructure, promoting the regional mobility of academic staff through short courses, temporary research placements and scientific and technological cooperation under networked projects, and creating a continental macro-university based on course offerings leading to universally interchangeable academic credits.

4. A quality assessment system should be used to project the social and public function of higher education and research and to guarantee compliance with the new standards that society demands. Mechanisms for the effective implementation of this system should be established in all countries in the region, calling on the participation of all social stakeholders.

5. Without question, we must continue to insist on a significant increase in investment in higher education, science and technology and on moves to encourage the private sector to intensify its research and development activity, without detriment to the increase in positive action taken by the State.




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

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government