Latin American universities

Pulling rank

by H.J.
SÃO PAULO – THE current issue of The Economist includes an article about the state of universities in Latin America. The region as a whole has low education standards. Its students do extremely poorly in the OECD's PISA evaluations, which test what 15-year-olds are able to do in the basics: reading and understanding a text in their own language, and applying mathematical and scientific ideas to everyday situations. It also has a particularly perverse way of doling out cash, spending proportionally less on primary education, which benefits everyone, and more on tertiary, which is the reserve of the few. (Brazil spends more than five times as much per university student as it does per primary-school pupil, by far the highest ratio in the world. In second place, Mexico spends three times as much.)

That money goes mostly to the children of well-off families, who are able to afford private schooling and therefore do well in university entrance exams. And it is usually doled out with little oversight from either governments or students, who generally have too little information about quality to push for improvements, and don't have the power to make a difference anyway. University staff in most countries are unsackable civil servants, while rectors are elected and hence tend to run on a platform of continuity.

The São Paulo state universities that are pulling ahead of the pack are doing so with the help of generous state funding, which allows them to scoop up the region's best researchers. They are also specialising. Brazil is emerging as what Demos, a British think-tank, describes as a "natural knowledge economy": one that boosts the value of its plentiful commodities by the application of technology, such as making biofuels from sugar cane. That in turn makes it possible to gather a critical mass of researchers in one place.

One of the big three ranking organisations, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), has produced a ranking of Latin American universities, the top ten of which we published in the print issue. The full list is available here. Other ranking organisations are looking carefully at the region too. Times Higher Education, a specialist weekly magazine, says it has enough data to produce a Latin American ranking. But it is still working on its methodology: its global top 200 makes up just 1% of the world's higher education institutions, which all compete in the same global market for students and professors. Including many more institutions would mean having to find new ways to compare a much more diverse bunch. Until the magazine is sure it can do it fairly, says Phil Baty, its deputy editor, it will move cautiously.

QS relies much more heavily than the other ranking organisations on measures of reputation, which allows it to move swiftly into new regions. However, that carries the disadvantage of potentially over-rating large institutions, especially those whose names include countries or capital cities, such as the University of Buenos Aires or the National Autonomous University of Mexico. They have hundreds of thousands of students apiece and sound like you must have heard of them, even if you have not. Still, a start has now been made on opening the region's universities to greater scrutiny. That can only help them to improve.