A New Model for Higher Education in Latin America

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It is crucial that Latin American universities should not focus solely on giving access to knowledge, but also provide students with the skills necessary to relate and apply this knowledge with real situations.

Photo: Central House of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

The three main issues in Latin America are corruption, insecurity and deficient education, in that order, according to the consulting firm Ipsos Public Affairs (VICE, 2016). Even though Latin America currently represents less than 9% of the global population, by 2033 the region is projected to surpass the number of inhabitants in Europe and, by 2050, its economic production (PwC, 2017).

This poses interesting challenges and opportunities for the region’s universities since Latin America’s progress implies the need for increasingly advanced, creative educational institutions that are in touch with the needs of the environment.

Along these lines, the World Bank indicates that university educational institutions in Latin America have improved considerably in some areas, for example: growing their enrollment; narrowing the gender gap; expanding to larger regions; greater investment in innovation; and more participation by the private sector in university projects. However, these advancements contrast with dropout rates of around 50%; poor academic quality; questionable duration and appropriateness of educational programs; limited academic offering; little progress in research; and deficient talent attraction.

Given this, what are the options for universities in the region to address their needs in the immediate future and the long term?

According to Marina Garcés, in her book Nueva Ilustración Radical, university institutions should not focus solely on providing access to the knowledge available to their students, since this is the same as giving them access to a library or a computer. What is truly important is to relate this knowledge to reality, seeking a way to contribute to each student’s education and to transform their surrounding world into a better place. In other words, if a student could potentially know “everything,” but cannot do “anything”, what good is all that knowledge?

In this regard, Tecnológico de Monterrey has made the decision to radically change its educational model called Tec 21, considering the need not only to prepare professionals who can change the future, but also to contribute to the transformation of human beings who will fulfill their potential as agents of change and transform their environment, starting while they are at university.

If a student could potentially know “everything,” but cannot apply it to real situations, what good is all that knowledge?

Based on experiential, collaborative and interdisciplinary immersion projects, students could participate actively in their professional training, which implies not only acquiring knowledge, but also developing the skills, attitudes and values that will allow them to learn critically and independently, solving real challenges in their current environment, accompanied by their teachers and education partners (organizations or community actors).

Elements of a new vision for higher education

  • Experiential immersion with a critical approach: Students must be in the environment, know and recognize it, identifying its needs and discovering (together with the community) possible solutions. If we are not aware of our reality, there is not much we can do to improve it.

  • Collaborative work and independent learning: As in the professional world, students must learn to collaborate in an environment that fosters interaction and the exchange of points of view, as well as “learning to learn” in a more independent way. Collaborative work and independent learning have become the cornerstone of the globalized labor market.

  • Interdisciplinarity focused on human beings: We must consider human beings as central entities. Interdisciplinarity is a necessity in higher education, since real problems cannot be resolved if only a couple of aspects are considered or if the human facet is not taken into account.

Faced with an uncertain world and constant changes, it is the responsibility of universities to train students to be independent lifelong learners.

The rationale behind these characteristics lies in the needs that form part of the complex world of the Latin American region, which can no longer be explained in traditional classrooms where artificial situations are presented, with isolated visions of problems and little or no interaction among the diverse areas of study.

Latin American universities can improve their programs of study, making them a better fit for their reality, and expand their educational offering. As Donald Schön would say, university graduates will be facing critical situations that are unforeseeable in this world of accelerated change, which is why universities are responsible for preparing them to develop their independent learning process successfully.

Any change in Latin American universities in this sense may appear to be challenging, risky and uncertain. However, not only is the future of university education in the region at stake, but also the future, life and development as human beings of each and every one of our students. Therefore, changing the approach to the Latin American university model is well worthwhile.

About the author

Dr. Jesús Meza Lueza (jesus.meza@itesm.mx) is Dean of the School of Humanities and Education for the Western Region. His teaching and research field encompasses public image, political image, corporate identity, digital strategic communication and educational innovation topics.