Universities in Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) were already facing daunting challenges before the global pandemic. Rising enrollments that overwhelmed institutional capacity, rigid governance structures, and severe budget restrictions have strained institutions across the region. The pandemic has not only compounded existing problems but has also created new difficulties for higher education. How universities respond to the crisis will likely determine the future of higher education in the LAC region for years to come.
Reaction to the health emergency
When the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in South America in March, universities exhibited surprising agility. Within a week, many HEIs had shut down and transitioned all operations and classes online. Survey results of American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies found that nearly three-quarters of universities in the region had transitioned to virtual teaching by May. In spite of real differences between public and private systems, overall, the rapidity of decision-making, the flexibility of governance systems, and the willingness of faculty to pivot to online teaching environments suggested an unexpected capacity for university nimbleness, creativity and innovation — key elements of institutional resilience during future crises. The pandemic may shock higher education systems in the LAC region to adopt structural, pedagogical and financing reforms that it has long resisted.
As the reality of the magnitude of the health and economic crisis in the region sets in and universities realise that they will not be returning to normal anytime soon, institutions are evaluating their changing roles and responsibilities, as well as determining how they will meet challenges and respond to new opportunities.
Societies and economies in crisis
Political instability, economic stagnation, and intractable inequality have all been made much worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, combining to create an unprecedented social crisis in the region. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) predicts the region will suffer a worse economic contraction than that of the Great Depression, with a per capita GDP decline of nearly 10%, draining household income and pushing 45 million people into poverty and extreme poverty.
The pandemic has underscored the vital role and impact in the society of universities in LAC. Universities across the region are mobilising, often through intra-regional and international collaborations, to respond to the 2020 health emergency and related social and economic tsunamis. There is wide agreement that the higher education imperative is an applied research agenda geared to solving the complex societal problems in the LAC region. Industry partnerships and research parks are seen as key to ensuring that research is pertinent for the national context and producing impact locally. To criticisms that higher education in LAC is out of step with society’s needs, universities are seizing the moment to reassert their leadership and relevance, and to strengthen their bonds with society. Governments and other stakeholders cannot solve the ‘states of catastrophe’ alone; they need the knowledge, science, research, and talent that universities produce. Notwithstanding the extraordinary institutional challenges that HEIs are currently facing, this may prove to be the age of the university in LAC.
Teaching and learning
Despite significant improvements in quality that have taken place in recent decades, many universities in the LAC region are widely acknowledged to be out of step with global advances in higher education. Programs with a rigid disciplinary focus, content-heavy curricula, outdated pedagogies, little regard for the science of learning, and poor articulation with changing workforce needs are just some of the difficulties that plague LAC universities. The crisis in universities brought on by COVID-19 may achieve what longstanding calls for innovation in higher education have not – wedging open the door toward substantive reform in teaching and learning.
The rapid response to online teaching has created a context of possibility for change, while the dire financial circumstances of LAC universities have created an urgent need for change. Institutions have an opportunity to rethink curricula and teaching models, to make them more flexible, more interdisciplinary, and more relevant to work in the 21st century. Online, hybrid and modular learning models present opportunities to make the delivery of education more flexible. Problem-solving learning, competency-based learning, and learning based on the needs of the labor market will increase the value of universities to students and societies. Universities recognise that higher education in the region must adapt to the reality of the emerging sectors and professions of the 4th industrial revolution. Finally, there is an opportunity to transform conventional universities into life-long learning ecosystems that offer continuous, online learning to all members of society.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic is that globalisation and complex interdependence among nations are real. Transnational processes — and problems — don’t stop at political borders, international research collaborations are crucial to developing a vaccine and responding to a public health crisis of global proportions, and the success of international coordination depends in part on intercultural understandings and perspectives. In short, higher education internationalisation is more relevant than ever. How is this playing out in the LAC context?
First, an explosion of interest in using virtual teaching collaborations and virtual exchange, prompted by the travel restrictions, points to an opportunity to transform the traditional, student mobility-based approach to internationalisation that dominates the region. Virtual methodologies are reprioritising the “internationalisation at home” model, which democratises global learning by providing the means for all students to have access to international and intercultural learning opportunities. This shift is refocusing internationalisation efforts toward the academic enterprise: program design, the curricula, learning outcomes, and research. Universities also see new opportunities to strengthen south-south cooperation and regional networks, and the potential to develop closer academic and institutional ties within the LAC region in search of solutions to shared problems. Finally, this changing internationalisation landscape is an opportunity to reset the dominant LAC approach to partnerships, replacing the quantity over a quality model with high-value international collaborations that build academic and research capacity and produce impact.
About the Author
Ann Mason is a senior executive with over 20 years’ experience in international education leadership, US-Latin America academic cooperation and international program development. Ann developed a first-hand understanding of the challenges that universities in the region face in becoming fully integrated into global higher education networks through her tenure as Fulbright Colombia’s Executive Director and Chair of the Political Science Department at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.
She created Mason Education Group in 2015 to advise universities, governments and foundations throughout the Americas on the development of international engagement strategies and programs so that they can more effectively connect with global knowledge networks and enhance their educational and academic services.
Ann plays an active leadership role in international education organisations. She has been elected to NAFSA’s board of directors starting in 2019, and also chaired NAFSA’s Teaching, Learning and Scholarship Knowledge Community and Latin American Forum. She is a member of NASPAA’s (Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration) Accreditation Standards Steering Committee, and serves on the board of directors of the Universidad del Rosario and the US-Colombia Binational Center, both in Bogota. She was senior advisor to IIE’s International Academic Partnership Program, and a member of the US-Colombia High Level Partnership Dialogue. Ann is also an Associate of the UK-based international education consultancy Barton Carlyle.
Ann currently divides her time between the US and Colombia, where she has lived for 24 years. She received her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, and holds a PhD in political science from Yale University.