Latin America & The Caribbean

No region left behind: global responsibility in the face of inequalities: the future of universities in latin america

Axel Didriksson
Damián del Valle
Daniela Perrotta
Claudio Suasnábar
Celia E. Caregnato
Bernardo S. Miorando
Carmen Caamaño
Andrés Felipe Mora Cortés

The universities of Latin America face a host of pressures, but also a number of new developments. The aim of this work is to present the perspective of a group of men and women who make up the core team of the GUNi presidency in Latin America. Together, they address current trends both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic across an array of countries. Above all, they reflect on a renewed, equitable future of public goods and social justice, laying out strategies and goals to bring about such a future, both at the regional level and in each of the selected countries. In this vein, they analyse change processes, look at new institutional components, and examine trends and comparisons. As a point of reference, they draw on the Regional Conference on Higher Education (CRES-UNESCO, in its Spanish initials), which was held at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina in 2018. The event, which served as a key gathering place for associations, networks, universities, rectors, ministries and governments, now stands as a renewed point of departure for one of the most solid and consolidated intellectual and academic currents in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Universities in Latin America are under question. First, they are institutions under dispute as commercial or business visions are set against others in which the state and the various options imposed as public policy predominate. Second, their relevance as the institution that used to be at the heart of knowledge production and scientific and technological innovation is questioned in light of the power of high-tech, global or transnational companies.

Universities have been in a period of long transition. From the 1990s to the current time, they have been changing substantially. New functions have been added such as innovation (their fourth mission). Their governance and the power of their administrations have been redefined, and they have resorted to resource diversification. Standards for the organisation and assessment of their academic bodies have been modified and they focus on society from a perspective of interculturality and social responsibility. The management of knowledge production and transfer has changed and curricula have been adapted to cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches, with the generation of initiatives to strengthen ties with the community. Centralised structures have been replaced by multicampus structures and local sites. Face-to-face locations have been combined with online or distance platforms. Consequently, universities are increasingly unrecognisable institutions if we compare then with the old days of cloisters and classrooms; closed or semi-isolated cubicles and laboratories; independent, unmovable campuses within a quasi-state; or teaching institutions focused on professionalisation.

In the midst of all these processes of change, structural alterations, new components, trends and contrasts, this article presents what is happening in a specific region, that of Latin America. It is based on a joint analysis by the GUNi regional working group and draws on the experience gained through the organisation of a major regional meeting (the only one at world level), in preparation for the World Conference. This was the Regional Conference on Higher Education (CRES-UNESCO), which was held at the National University of Córdoba, Argentina, in 2018. CRES convened and constructed a space of reference for associations, networks, universities, rectors, ministers and governments. It has become the benchmark for coordinating the expression of a very solid, consolidated current of thought in Latin America and the Caribbean on the diversity and integration of universities. This article reports on the advances, setbacks and current perspectives of universities. It also proposes a set of future initiatives to advance in the discussion of a new situation of equity, inclusion and sustainability, so that no region is left behind. It considers the conceptual approach that at international level is contained in Concept Note of the GUNi World Report of 2022[1].

General context of higher education in latin america

We are facing a trend situation that must be addressed in a critical way. The aim is to promote changes that should be maintained and supported at public policy level by states and universities – particularly public universities.

Our regional situation is one in which there is a severe cyclical crisis and systematic processes of intervention to establish new mechanisms of control by the government and other prominent actors, as described in this article. These mechanisms have threatened university life, university autonomy and the right to academic freedom. In other nations, this is not occurring in such a systematic, aggressive way but enormous difficulties are still faced.

The most serious, critical trend in the region is the extreme commercialisation of the education service that constrains, hierarchises and segments the formal structures of higher education for the public and social good. For-profit, low-quality education options are promoted, with an instrumentalist view focused on earnings and shaped by the demands of a mercantilist, individualistic economy and the alleged advancement of global cyberculture. In response to these positions, political-educational and strategic reflection is required to challenge the predominant technocentrism and the instrumental and economicist rationality and make way for critical and creative thinking, supported by the autonomy of universities and their projection as institutions of public good and guarantors of a universal human right.

At the start of the twenty-first century, out of the total number of higher education institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean (8,756), there were 1,917 private universities, 1,023 public universities, and just over 5,800 higher education institutes of all types and levels. In the entire region, around 14 million students were enrolled in further education. In total, this represented 259 higher education students for every 10,000 inhabitants, with a gross enrolment ratio of 28.5%. In most countries, women’s participation already exceeded 50% of enrolled students. In some countries of the Caribbean and the Southern Cone, it represented over 60% of total enrolments. In comparison, the gross enrolment ratio in countries of North America and western Europe reached 57%, with 51.7% of women’s participation.

Sixty per cent of enrolment in postgraduate higher education is concentrated in three countries: Brazil (28%), Mexico (17%) and Argentina (14%). These countries are followed in order of importance by: Peru (6%), Central America (6%), Chile (4%), Bolivia (2%) and the Caribbean (1%).

Countries that have between 75% and 100% of higher education students in public institutions are Cuba, Uruguay, Bolivia, Panama, Honduras and Argentina. Countries that have a greater percentage (between 50 and 75%) of students in private institutions are Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. In an intermediate position, that is, countries with high percentages of students in both the public and private sectors, are Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay, Peru and Guatemala. However, the trend of increasing participation of private higher education institutions has been rising constantly in the region.

In terms of the distribution of students by knowledge area and degree, the strong trend of concentration in social, business and legal sciences has been maintained. The number of students in these fields was 35% of the total in some countries (such as Argentina, Chile or Surinam), 40% in others (for example, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama), and up to 50% in others (El Salvador). In sciences, the regional average was around 10% and in some cases it was slightly higher. The percentage of students in engineering subjects fluctuated between 7% (Argentina) and 29% (Colombia). If the percentages of students enrolled for Social Sciences, Administration and Law is added to the percentages of students in Humanities, Arts and Education, the figure reaches over 60% of the total.

Researchers mainly work at higher education institutions, particularly in public universities, where there are 65% of the total. This represents 0.87% of researchers in every 10,000 members of the economically active population (EAP). In terms of scientific publications, Latin America and the Caribbean produce only 2.6% of the total number of publications worldwide.

The general situation of the advance of knowledge is very uneven, from a comparative perspective. Knowledge generation is highly concentrated in a few countries and not very dynamic. This is due to factors such as brain drain (there are more Latin American postgraduate students in universities of the United States or Europe [122,806] than in the region [33,546]), low investment in higher education (between 0.5% and 1%) and the fact that postgraduate studies are mainly concentrated in three countries: Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Most of the investment in research and development comes from the state (60.8%) and is received by a handful of universities and researchers, most of which are also in the three countries mentioned above (138,653 researchers in Brazil; 51,685 in Argentina and 43,592 in Mexico).

This has a negative impact on opportunities for social advancement, job mobility and entry into formal, stable jobs for graduates of secondary, upper secondary and higher education, due to the segmented structure of the education system that can be equated with the socioeconomic disparities found at national and regional level.

However, the reduction in public resources and the privatisation of education services (that cover a limited population because of payment capabilities) has decreased many countries’ opportunities to carry out waves of expansion that could adapt to the rise in educational demand, particularly in public education, even in the majority of the largest, most developed countries in the region. To this are added the conditions of inequality that affect continuous, successful educational pathways. These pathways are hampered by considerable differences in income and salary levels, belonging to an indigenous group, first language, gender, physical disabilities and other obstacles of a geographic and sub-urban nature.

Even so and considering the increase in number of institutions and other groupings, in the last ten years public, national, independent universities (those defined as “macrouniversities” (Didriksson, 2022) were the institutions that grew most in size. They were the institutions that recreated a privileged place in the spectrum of diversification and managed to express themselves, sometimes exclusively, as the only complex institutions, above all due to their growth in research and postgraduate studies.

These universities had found the next step to take in the dynamic of changes that began to emerge swiftly at the start of this century. Changes occurred in the context of a new debate on the concepts of quality, transparency in funding, rendering of accounts, flexibility of the curriculum, equity and relevance, use and handling of new information and communication technologies, knowledge production and knowledge transfer, all within new legal, legislative, political and organisational systems.

The debate on the change in higher education

In this context, from the start of the new century, some countries started a process of redefining their legislative and normative guidelines and promoting systemic changes in universities. These included far-reaching reforms supported by the vision of progressive governments that faced and regulated the extreme privatisation, and introduced policies and programmes for inclusion and the re-evaluation of academic life. Above all, these countries promoted institutional initiatives of the state as the promoter and guarantor of higher education as a public good, and of the commitment to population segments that had been permanently excluded from this level of studies. This opened up a regional debate on the alternatives for the future, with to-ing and fro-ing, advances and setbacks that were closely related to the changes that took place in various Latin American governments.

Two phases in the processes of change

The processes indicated above should be compared with what happened in two contrasting phases in public policy on higher education in the region. First, in around 2010, which is the cut-off year for this cycle, some countries presented legislative initiatives on public policy and on assertive, inclusive programmes that substantially improved access, retention and the organisation of higher education institutions, and encouraged the creation of new universities. From 2018 (also a cut-off date for the cycle) to the current time, governmental changes occurred in many of these countries that totally overturned the progressive policies and democratisation that was being constructed, and shifted to the opposite site, that is, towards repressive, far-right regimes that have led to an extremely worrying climate of persecution of universities and a reduction in their resources, affecting public universities above all.

Between 2018 and 2020, movements that had an impact on elections or coups of a “new type” (unlike those during the 1960s and 1970s with direct military and police intervention) took place under the pretext of electoral movements or the outbreak of mass student and civil society protests. This situation affected efforts to expand enrolment, create universities and promote projects to include groups and sectors that have been excluded from this educational level (as in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina). It altered constitutional projects, proposals of broad, inclusive development and far-reaching academic reforms.

First phase

Around the first decade of this century, various governments, notably in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Uruguay, accepted social demands to expand the capacity of higher education systems, based on an emerging reorganisation of public policy and various actors who demonstrated in favour of a great transformation in universities. This was seen on a mass scale in the demands of the Chilean student movement (2011–2014), that of Puerta Rica (2011–2012), Colombia (2011/2020) and Mexico (2011–2012), to mention just a few cases. These movements represent a qualitative shift in the way the sector presents its demands on regulations and policies, and in the main trend in the academic world of a traditional agenda to debate the public and private issue. Demonstrations have gone beyond the institutional level to reach the political arena nationally or sub-regionally.

From other perspectives, in the cases of Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela or Uruguay, and even in the Central America and Caribbean countries, the discussion of a new agenda for all of higher education was received with great interest in the university communities and even beyond them in other sectors of society and in national political life.

This was the case in Ecuador, for example, where the Organic Law on Higher Education (LOES, 2010) was approved after strong university student action. This made it possible to redefine public policy on higher education in the country. In Brazil, significant affirmative programmes were introduced for minorities and sectors that are traditional excluded. This led to a considerable increase in post-graduation rates (particularly at doctoral degree level) and in scientific research.

Among these experiences and reforms, some academic innovation schemes, concepts, policies and programmes have been organised and promoted that confirm a kind of new wave of changes in higher education in the region. They are based on the debate at the Regional Conference on Higher Education 2008, held in the city of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

There are many examples of institutional advances and innovations that are emblematic in many cases, as they represent efforts to go beyond traditional models of universities from a range of alternatives. Given the space available in this article, some of the best known are described below (Didriksson and Moreno, 2016) (in alphabetic order):

  • Argentina: this is the country (along with Brazil) that, during the governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, took the initiative to create new state-subsidised public universities. It is perhaps the country that has most strongly defended and legislated on the concept of public good. This is evidenced by the fact that, in just a few years, important national universities were created within and outside the perimeter of Greater Buenos Aires. These include the expansion of subsites of the emblematic University of Buenos Aires (UBA), with 12 regional centres (in areas of high deprivation) and the others in the interior of the country. They are the forerunners of a new decentralisation system, particularly in the provinces of Córdoba, San Luis and Entre Ríos, among others.
  • Brazil: public higher education institutions were also created, with the establishment of a federal network of 38 education, science and technology institutes and 18 new universities, under academic innovation schemes. Examples are the Federal University for Latin American Integration (UNILA), the University for International Integration of the Afro-Brazilian Lusophony (UNILAB) and the Federal University of ABC. These institutions have structures, academic offerings and a direction that is strategic for Brazil. They are fundamental to disrupt the vision of the traditional university that transcends its own references. Furthermore, since 2004, the government has offered full and partial grants for low-income students in private institutions. Since 2012, 50% of places in federal higher education institutions have been reserved for students from public schools. These places are free and racial quotas are applied.
  • Colombia: Also with the aim of increasing coverage levels in a country with a high concentration of private universities, Regional Higher Education Centres (CERES) have been promoted. These have a public-private form of organisation and financing and are run under blended systems that combine face-to-face and online education. They are located in places where there is low coverage of traditional higher education institutions or of large private universities. By 2012, there were 176 of these centres with over 30,000 students. Since 2014, Colombia has moved away from a predominantly private higher education system. Now the public sector accounts for just over 50% of total enrolment.
  • Ecuador: As a result of the enactment of the Organic Law of Higher Education (LOES), considerable changes in the higher education system were promoted during the government of Rafael Correa. Notably, four new universities were created that are considered emblematic. These are the National University of Education (UNAE), the Amazon Regional University (IKIAM), the University of the Arts (UNIARTES) and the University of Experimental Technology and Research (YACHAY). All of these are public universities, designed to foster a transformation model, as stated by their lead minister: “Since 2008, the government in Ecuador has publicly started to address Ecuadorian universities with criticism and proposals. With this action, the government has initiated a process of transformation in the higher education sector that has not been seen since the return to democracy in 1979” (Ramírez, 2010).
  • Mexico: For decades, the Mexican state has not contributed to the creation of new federal universities. However, it has established a number of institutions with dual federal-state funding. These include the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM) and the University of the Wetland of the State of Michoacan (UCEMICH), which have alternative models fostered and sponsored by their own local governments. In addition, the main federal and autonomous universities have promoted the creation of alternative sites, such as sub-campuses or campus extensions. In 2018, the proposal was to create 69 intermediate universities (technical), 30 new campuses as extensions of consolidated universities and 4 federal universities (goals that have not yet been met).
  • Paraguay: This country only had one university in the past. However, by the beginning of the century, seven further universities had been established in the country, in response to the growing demand for higher education. This led to a notable increase in the private sector above the trend in rate of growth, as has occurred in other countries in the region.
  • Peru: Since the start of this century, 21 public universities have been created in this country. However, the growth of the private sector has also been constant. In 2012, a moratorium was declared to suspend the growth of public institutions, in order to reconsider policies in the sector and redefine the regulatory framework for a new period, with a focus on models of “research universities”.
  • Uruguay: As in Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean and Central American countries, for decades just one university existed in this country. It was considered the bastion of higher education and the creator of sector policies: the emblematic University of the Republic. With the new century, a new institution has been created, the Technological University of Uruguay (2013). Furthermore, the establishment of a new public university (specialised in teacher training) is under discussion in a country where, like Argentina and Cuba, public institutions are much more predominant than private institutions.
  • Venezuela: In the midst of considerable controversy at university level regarding the relationship between quality and quantity, the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela proposed extensive regionalisation and creation of university and non-university sites. As a result, at the beginning of the century, 232 sites and extensions of higher education institutions existed, of which 59 were situated in the urban area of Caracas. Nevertheless, enrolment at private higher education institutions stood at 77% of the total. To increase coverage levels, university villages, territorial polytechnic universities and twenty new universities of a public nature were created throughout the country, as part of a strategy that focused on the “universalisation” of the gross enrolment ratio. The new universities include the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, the Film and the University of the Armed Forces. In 2010, half a million students had enrolled in these institutions. Between 2012 and 2013, five further state universities were created, and in 2014 the creation of four new territorial universities was planned in other states.


This general overview of change is clearly incomplete because it should include the three universities that are being developed in Bolivia (UNIBOL), the many new sites of national universities, or joint integration projects that are shaping a new scenario. Examples are the projects promoted by the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group (AUGM) and MERCOSUR or those planned by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), to mention just some of the impressive multinational efforts being made in higher education, science and technology. However, the region is entering a new period of institutional expansion and academic and social innovation, in which the establishment of knowledge and learning platforms, the extensive use and handling of new technologies and the management of innovation processes is beginning to become apparent and ties in with the idea of a “Latin American knowledge society” or a “common space of knowledge”, from the perspective of emphasising the social good of studies and university research.

Second phase: the transition

This period ended between 2017 and 2020, with regime change in several countries. As a result, the environment of creation and innovation in new and traditional universities began to change significantly.

​​​​​​At the start of 2019, the first civil disturbances of the period were triggered in Haiti when various corrupt actions associated with the PetroCaribe case and Jovenel Moise’s government were made public. This was added to the worsening economic crisis in the country, which is perhaps the poorest in the region. The disturbances led to over 40 deaths but their impact was unsubstantial: they only brought about the dismissal of the prime minister and subsequently the assassination of the president. In Nicaragua, student and civil protests were sparked by the proposal of a social security plan promoted by Daniel Ortega’s government, and other measures that were considered detrimental to university autonomy. The number of deaths during April was estimated at around 325. In Puerto Rico, during July, the general public became aware of many instances of corruption associated with appalling government management and reprisals against the University of Puerto Rico, the most important university in the country. This was added to the economic and infrastructure crisis experienced during the natural disasters suffered by the population. The result was mass protests of citizens and students, which brought about the dismissal of the highest level of government that had been dependent on the United States and led by Ricardo Roselló. The unstable conditions continued during an electoral period that was subject to the interests of Donald Trump’s government.

In the continental part of Latin America, civil and university protests proliferated in 2018 and above all in 2019. They occurred in response to a constitutional reform proposal in Panama. In Ecuador, they were sparked by cuts in subsidies and the polarisation of the government led by former president Lenin Moreno and then the current government of banker Guillermo Lasso. In Colombia, a national strike was held against the government of Iván Duque. Like his predecessor, Duque had adopted measures that set back what had been achieved in previous governments, particularly in the area of higher education. In Bolivia, a coup was staged against the presidency of Evo Morales with clear overtones of racism, religion and political reprisals by the population’s middle and upper classes. In Chile, during Piñera’s government, in a context of polarisation and debate on university reforms, the government decided to increase the price of public transport. Mass protests broke out that converged on the demand for a new political constitution in which the topic of university educational reform was a crucial factor (Rodríguez, 2020).

In Argentina, electoral change occurred in a positive way in favour of president Fernández, with a new discourse promoting higher education. It remains to be seen what happens in Uruguay, where the validity of the university had been guaranteed based on the approaches of extensive coverage, development of inclusion programmes, and creation of subregional alternatives such as those established by the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group (AUGM). In Mexico, with López Obrador’s government, the regime change has been very positive like the new government of Argentina. This is because it is driving legislative and social changes with substantial reforms and programmes designed to achieve broad inclusion and social equity in the education and university sector.

In Brazil, with the arrival of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, the environment is one of real tension and persecution of public universities and their elected authorities. Fear has spread among teachers in an inconceivable way.

What had been achieved in these countries is vanishing fast.

This brief review of some of the events experienced during the last decade in the region shows that what has been achieved in some countries to bring about substantial changes in the university system can collapse from one year to the next. This is causing conflicts of great educational and social reach. The outlook for the region continues to be extremely unsettled.

In a few more years, we will see the results of the events and changes that are underway in Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia, among other countries. This will enable a different situation to be revealed that could increase the certainty of the agreements that have been signed and adopted by a considerable number of universities, as in Córdoba, Argentina, during the UNESCO Regional Conference on Higher Education (CRES-2018), and those signed at government level to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promoted by the United Nations (UN).

The transition and the future: five case studies

The right to higher education in Argentina: internationalisation and regional integration based on academic collaboration networks

The discussion on university democratisation has gained central importance on research agendas in the last 15 years in Argentina, based on the formulation of higher education as a public good and its increasing appreciation as a universal right that should be guaranteed by the states (Chiroleu, 2018; Chiroleu and Iazzeta, 2005; Del Valle, Montero, and Mauro, 2017; Lucardi, 2018; Rinesi, 2015). This discussion is connected to strong university mobilisation in the region, particularly in the framework of the last two Regional Conferences on Higher Education (CRES) in Latin America and the Caribbean (2008, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia and 2018, Córdoba, Argentina). In this section, we review the main university transformations of the country after its democratisation. We focus on the policies of the last 15 years and how these are associated with the formation of an autonomous way of processing university internationalisation, based on a supportive, regional proposal.

In Argentina, this path is linked to a series of historical transformations that strengthened the tradition of public universities and the progressive process of massification. This process began with the University Reform of 1918, with its demands for a democratised university from an institutional perspective, associated with the social problems and the situation in Latin America. In this pathway to obtain rights, President Perón’s 1949 decree on free university education should also be considered; it was the starting point for the massification of the system. Other factors are the debates in the 1960s on the role of the university and scientific and technological production in processes of national liberation; and the creation of dozens of new state university institutions, especially in the 1970s and the 1990s.

However, other trends counterbalanced this democratising perspective. They include the emergence of international cooperation agencies’ guidelines and the establishment of a private subsystem of university education in the 1960s. Another trend was the wave of neoliberal reforms, implemented under the conception of education as a deregulated, denationalised service and the suspicion and demonisation of public institutes, and translated into greater governmental pressure through evaluation and selective financing policies. In Argentina, these reforms were expressed in Law 24.521, which is still in force today, with some amendments introduced in 2015.

The political scene in Latin America changed at the start of this century with the simultaneous entry of popular and progressive governments in many countries that gained political power with strong social support. As a result, CRES of 2008, supported by UNESCO, confronted the hegemonic conceptions of the previous decade and proposed that higher education should be considered a social and public good, a fundamental human right, whose guarantee should be a priority of states.

In this phase, which coincided in Argentina with the governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2003–2015), a new cycle of democratisation of the university took place that was made effective in many actions. First, eighteen new universities were created (some based on existing institutions but most completely new) in various parts of the country and in municipalities of Greater Buenos Aires that have a large proportion of vulnerable people. Second, funding of research institutions and organisations increased considerably. In this pathway, notable actions were the creation of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the restructuring of salaries and access to the scientific research career in Argentina. Third, a series of social policies were introduced that contributed to guaranteeing the completion of secondary education and promoting admission, retention and graduation in further education. These included university grants and Progresar (progress) grants for upper secondary and further education, the provision of computers for adolescents in public schools, secondary school completion plans for adults, direct transfers such as the universal child allowance to stop people from dropping out of upper secondary education for economic reasons, and initiatives for tutors to support new students, to name just the most emblematic. Fourth, it was stressed that the knowledge generated by the university and the scientific-technological system should benefit various vulnerable sectors and contribute to the reduction in social inequalities[1]. However, these innovations coincided with a certain degree of inertia in the previous agenda. Although initiatives were promoted that tended to make the right to higher education effective, they were not reflected in comprehensive, complete regulatory reform[2].

These national policies were also coordinated with the internationalisation strategies of MERCOSUR, which were at a turning point in 2008, with the configuration of a permanent regional accreditation system for the academic quality of qualifications (ARCU SUR) based on an experimental mechanism developed between 2004 and 2006. In addition, considerable qualitative and quantitative advances were made in mobility initiatives and in the implementation of policies to create academic networks. These included initiatives such as MERCOSUR’s Studies and Research in Higher Education Unit (NEIES), launched with MERCOSUR’s operational plan for the Education Sector, 2011–2016. From NEIES, thematic networks and networks for reflection on the process of the internationalisation of higher education could be developed, in line with the challenges of regional integration[3]. The first action of NEIES was to launch an online journal called Integración y Conocimiento[4](Integration and Knowledge). Subsequently, seminars were held. Later, progress was made in subsidies for research networks on subject areas that were defined as priorities: internationalisation, assessment, institutional diversification, recognition of qualifications, democratisation, university outreach, university extension, online higher education and the role of universities in environmentally sustainable development.

The formation of university networks established greater interaction between institutions and their academic communities. It enabled greater advantage to be taken of the capabilities of each one to boost individual strengths. It provided a starting point for knowledge to be shared horizontally and vertically (among universities and between these and disadvantaged sectors of society). It also formed the basis for establishing new forms of regional coordination and integration (Gazzola and Didriksson, 2008; Gazzola and Goulart Almeida, 2006; Zarur Miranda, 2008). At the same time, these new forms of interuniversity cooperation required the creation of synergies and complementarities, which challenged the identity of universities.

The networks generated regional studies on the priority topics. This stimulated a regional field of knowledge, as the research was developed regionally, beyond the closed views of national realities. In this way, an important political arena was formed to reflect on the internationalisation of higher education and the role of universities in strengthening the process of regional integration (Perrotta and Del Valle, 2018).

These networks had a recognisable impact on CRES 2008 proposals. This was not only due to their capacity to mobilise and propose an approach to counteract competitive internationalisation, but also because of their ability to generate support and synergies that served to occupy an empty discussion space around CRES 2018. For example, networks that are part of various programmes, such as the Programme for the Promotion of the Argentine University (PPUA)[5] in the Programme for the Internationalisation of Higher Education and International Cooperation (PIESCI) or NEIES of MERCOSUR, helped to organise the regional talk “Evaluation of the Declaration of Cartagena de Indias and Contributions to the Regional Conference of Higher Education 2018” (Buenos Aires, 10 November 2017). This event brought together over 350 researchers in the field of higher education studies from the entire region and a set of university actors (teaching unions and students) to discuss the main achievements and challenges of the last ten years and to generate proposals for the new regional conference planned for the following year[6].

This coordination, together with similar examples found in other parts of the continent, served to create a sufficiently solid framework for the conference in Córdoba to reaffirm the principles established in Cartagena. Some advances in the discourse were even made in a regional political context that was more adverse to the extension of rights.

The change in government that took place in December 2019 in Argentina created the opportunity to discuss one of the main topics that was pending from the 2003–2015 period: the approval of a new higher education law that fully consolidated in Argentinian regulations the perspective of the university and knowledge generation as a right and a public and social good. The new law would incorporate the democratising innovations highlighted above and give direction and meaning to the future of the Argentinian university system. The reform would also involve including in regulations the supportive, cooperative method of regional integration that had been introduced since CRES 2008. In this approach, it is considered that higher education is an instrument of development and cooperation between nations and that the right to higher education goes far beyond the individual question of access, retention and graduation to encompass the strategic issue of the distribution and appropriation of knowledge. In addition, the private sector must be required to align with the social needs and the strategic goals of the country and the region. The strategic nature of the arts and culture must be recognised in the fight for cultural sovereignty, sustainable development and multicultural integration.

At the present time, largely due to the experience gained in academic networks and their coordinated action in regional debates, it is clear that guaranteeing the right to university at national scale is inseparable from a necessary international and cooperative perspective.

Bases and limits of sustainable development in higher education in Brazil

In 2015, when the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established, Brazil had followed a path of a decade of expansion in educational provision. It had focused on increasing free or subsidised places and on the association between public higher education and science, technology and innovation. These advances established the country as a Latin American leader and a rising system on the global stage. This process gathered pace from 2003, during the federal governments of the Workers' Party. At the end of 2014, the last year of the first government of Dilma Rousseff, a National Education Plan was approved to guide the growth of the national system with goals relating to the expansion and qualification of higher education. The consolidation of this process converged with the principles supported in the Final Statement of the Regional Conference on Higher Education in Latin American and the Caribbean 2018 (CRES 2018).

However, from 2015, the change in the interrelationship of political forces and the economic situation led to a reconfiguration of state action, which crystallised in the collapse of the presidency in 2016. This broke up a cycle of public policies associated with a national project that had adopted education as a pillar of social development. The political change exacerbated a context of crisis that was already limiting public and private capacities for educational investment. As a result, the path of development that had been travelled up to that point was interrupted and the perspectives outlined in 2014 were abandoned. Between 2016 and 2018, the process of formulating and managing education policies became more centralised and strongly driven by market logic. The government that took over in 2019 did not formulate new educational policies. Instead it applied an authoritarian, morally conservative discourse that was supposedly aligned with neoliberal economic principles. With this discourse, it aimed to justify disinvestment in the area and the degradation of public higher education institutions.

In response to this situation, public higher education institutes are trying to strengthen their coordination to withstand government attacks and maintain their activities. In turn, private higher education institutions are experimenting with new institutional and educational formats that enable them to increase their efficiency and competitiveness. In both sectors, there is a reduction in resources and tension in the social demand for higher education in terms of potential students and the opportunities for enrolled students to devote time to their studies. The context is one of increased unemployment and devaluation of salaries in reais. The relative value of university qualifications is decreasing. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened this situation and contributed to the distancing of student bodies from higher education institutions and the precariousness of labour relations. The digitalisation of teaching has limited the learning conditions and highlighted educational shortfalls. At the same time, the spread of an anti-science discourse associated with the authoritarian conservatism in the presidency of the Republic has eroded the epistemic principle of the legitimacy of public universities. However, the actions of university communities to address the pandemic have reinforced the legitimacy of universities as relevant institutions to address social problems.

The items explored below enable an assessment of recent higher education and present goals designed to advance towards the creation of a higher education project that considers the sustainable development of Brazilian society.

 Governance and public service

University action has continued to be a bastion for social environmentalism, the assertion of inequality, the secularisation of life, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and the defence of equity with practices of recognition and redistribution. The constitutional principle of educational autonomy of universities, with relative freedom for teaching and research, is one of the elements that enables the university community to discuss issues such as gender and sexuality, risk behaviours, labour relations, income distribution and environmental balance. These topics are considered taboo by the conservative forces of society. Another factor is the job stability of teachers and researchers as public servants.

One of the limitations that universities and higher education institutions face is the need to be less bureaucratic and more democratic. The university curriculum is conservative in its tradition to train professionals by prioritising contents, without focusing more on moral development based on the public sense of higher education. Even when the governance model is organised around collegial spaces, as in the public sector that generally concentrates power at teaching level, there is little dialogue with the surrounding society. When dialogue exists, it is focused on extension projects. In the private sector, the governance is more similar to business management and there is a predominance of training that only involves teaching activities. In both sectors, experiences of participation and public debate do not match the possibilities and the need to democratise a conservative society. Furthermore, advanced cultural elements and the construction of academic and social capital are not reinforced. Expanding the training opportunities that are offered to students depends on strengthening the university as a leading institution of tertiary education, with assurance of the material conditions required to meet its role of a public space for knowledge generation and the full development of individuals.

Skills and competencies

Higher education courses in Brazil were constructed on the basis of the minimum contents considered necessary to work in a profession. In the 2000s, activities relating to changes in relations in Brazilian society have focused more on anti-racism and anti-sexism in specific disciplines, research and extension activities, study groups, and even talks and conferences. The impacts on society of structural violence based on class, gender and race have entered the agendas of groups that involve university actors. However, the link between theoretical discussion and practical action is found almost exclusively in activities that do not form part of the compulsory curriculum.

The same situation can be found in other forms of intervention in everyday social life, including professional practice. Placements in education are not compulsory in all courses and, although students must complete the workload of complementary activities, these activities do not guarantee the instrumentalisation of training that has a close relation with practice. There is a huge gap between the extracurricular opportunities in institutions focused on teaching, which account for the majority of enrolled students, and those available in research universities. In research universities, there are opportunities such as start-up grants for research, teaching and technological innovation; tutorials; extension projects; student organisations; junior enterprises; cultural activities; and administrative work. Through academic socialisation, these spaces enable the development of soft skills, cultural repertoires, a connection with ethical values and, in some cases, scientific and professional competencies that are part of the social dynamic. One goal of the National Education Plan is the incorporation of extension activities as part of the curriculum of undergraduate courses. This is a challenge that higher education institutions are facing currently. Therefore, to advance in citizenship skills training, the compulsory curriculum would need to increase the inclusion of outreach or extension.

Research and innovation

Universities are central actors in the National Science, Technology and Innovation System. Most Brazilian researchers are university lecturers and students who carry out research activities as part of their job responsibilities or with grants. In recent decades, their impact on the production sector has gone beyond basic and applied research, and technology parks have been established. Some universities have established technology development units that are generally associated with training for entrepreneurship and for pedagogical innovation. From the decade of the 2000s, the organisation of specialised higher education institutes that have links with the production sector, thematic areas or regulated professions gained strength. In 2008, the federal government established a federal network for professional, scientific and technological education. Federal institutes were created to coordinate professional education in secondary and higher education courses with applied research. The aim was to promote regional development with technological solutions in multi-campus institutions.

Brazil is one of the countries with closest ties to the open access movement in scientific literature, as shown by the large number of journals that are published without charging subscriptions or publication fees. Some pioneering initiatives were essential to achieve this success. One example is the creation of the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) programme in 1998 by the São Paulo Research Foundation (Fapesp) in association with the Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information (Birene) of the Pan American Health Organization (PHO), which is associated with the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, the Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology (IBICT) of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations translated and adapted Open Journal Systems (OJS) software for journal editing, management and publication, developed by the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) in 2003. This institute made available the Electronic System for Journal Publication (SEER), which is widely used in Brazilian institutions and encourages the adoption of international publishing standards for electronic journals.

Based on the open access movement, in 2005 the IBICT launched, with the support of researchers from several Brazilian states, the Manifesto of Open Access to Scientific Information. The Manifesto promotes the registration and dissemination of Brazilian scientific output, in line with the open access to information initiative. Due to this initiative, Brazil now has broad coverage of institutional repositories that provide scientific articles and academic papers in open access. The country is a leader in this area globally. Currently, the main Brazilian universities and research institutes are working to construct platforms to share research data in open access, a concern that is expressed in the National Action Plan for Open Government.

The presence of research ethics committees is increasing in the research area. This has been particularly notable since 2012, with the increased need for collegial assessment of projects that involve humans. The committees in research institutions are coordinated by the National Committee of Ethics in Research (Conep), an organisation that is associated with the Ministry of Health, in the CEP/Conep System, which also has a database integrated into the Plataforma Brasil. In addition, ethics committees exist on the use of animals in research. They are regulated by the National Council for the Control of Animal Experimentation (Concea), associated with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. However, training in research ethics is still not very visible in higher education institutes.


By law, environmental issues must be addressed in higher education courses. However, the approach is not uniform and the position of higher education institutes on the environment is ambiguous. Teaching, research and extension activities highlight the problem and call into question actions and initiatives that attack the biomass and exploit natural resources, leading to degradation of the natural environment. However, universities do not tend to have well-established systems for environmental protection in their processes of consumption and waste production. The separation, handling and discarding of waste still do not follow the basic standards required to reduce environmental impact. State or corporate funding of research does not tend to consider as a central factor the principles of environmental management.

In terms of the social sustainability of higher education institutes and their republican legitimacy before society, the topics of access and retention of students are relevant. This is because the reason for the existence of higher education institutions is associated with the relation they form with the new generations in the student body. In Brazilian society, in which most of the population has a low income, free education is still a relevant topic. Although only around 25% of places on undergraduate courses are free, this proportion is crucial to the access of population segments that cannot afford the monthly payments and to avoid a greater increase in the fees charged by the private sector. Public higher education institutes, in which education is free, have been affected by budget restrictions, including those applied to resources for supporting students, in a situation in which around two-thirds of students come from low-income families. The composition of the student population has changed, particularly since 2012, with places reserved for students from public schools, and specific racial and income quotas. These criteria have been used to award federal grants in private higher education institutions since 2005.

In addition to problems in financing education, the research that is carried out in the public sector faces sustainability challenges. The pattern of expansion in the previous decade led to the creation of new higher education institutions and the Programme to Support the Restructuring and Expansion Plans of Federal Universities (REUNI). The aim of this plan was to make more efficient use of university resources with an increase in the number of places, above all in courses at night. This increase, which was carried out from the perspective of internalising the offer, still lacks consolidation of the physical infrastructure for teaching and research, the institutional infrastructure to support students, and pedagogical innovation.

Government discourse ordered public higher education institutions to establish their own sources of income. However, public administration regulations limit these initiatives. The Legal Framework for Science, Technology and Innovation introduced greater flexibility in the management of research resources but it is difficult to assess its effects in terms of the promotion of investment in a period of institutional instability and economic crisis. Non-compliance with contracts by governments discourages the search for income-generating projects, as there are no expectations of autonomy in the use of the resources that are gained. Although private research funding can be found in universities, the academic community tends to distrust the consequences of focusing its agenda on the private interests of potential financiers.

 ICTs and digitalisation

At system level, platforms and databases have been developed to manage an increasingly broad, complex set of higher education institutes. There are national platforms for regulating undergraduate (e-MEC) and postgraduate degrees (Sucupira), the validation of qualifications from higher education institutions in other countries (Carolina Bori), the management of research resources (Carlos Chagas), academic curricula (Lattes), research ethics assessment (Plataforma Brasil) and continuous training of teachers (Freire, renamed Educación Básica in 2019). These resources are organised by the ministries and their autarkies. Therefore, there is an ecosystem with digital government resources at national level. Its architecture also influences the information systems developed by higher education institutes to manage the data of a student body that is increasingly numerous, and to promote a set of activities that are increasingly sophisticated.

Throughout the 2000s, undergraduate courses were developed in distance mode, initially through public university projects supported by government programmes. The Open University of Brazil (UAB) was established as a system in 2006 to coordinate public higher education institutes and face-to-face support centres. Its priority was to offer initial and ongoing training for teachers who worked in basic public education. Thus, it internalised the offering of higher education. In this decade and the following one, the offering of undergraduate distance learning courses by private higher education institutes increased to the extent that some of them changed their focus to this mode of delivery. In 2019, the offering of places on undergraduate courses in the private sector was greater for distance than face-to-face courses, and over 35% of enrolments were for this mode. This expansion was not accompanied by an efficient process of supervision, and the processes of evaluation and regulation were insufficient to ensure the quality of the training. As a result, tertiary level training is becoming more distant from the framework of higher education as a process of socialisation and a broader, deeper cultural experience.

The construction of virtual learning objects in Brazil is evident in initiatives such as the Ministry of Education Platform for Digital Education Resources, which was created in 2015. However, the incorporation of digital elements into everyday teaching in higher education was a challenge in the period of emergency distance teaching during the pandemic. The situation revealed that training teaching staff to use resources is an element of digital inclusion. In addition, students need to learn tools so that they can handle information technologies, particularly students who did not have access to these resources in their educational trajectories and do not use them in other areas of their lives. It is important to consider that one factor in the gap between students and technology is financial shortage, which is reflected in limited access to equipment, an internet connection and knowledge, and precarious study conditions in the domestic environment.

International collaboration: strengthen partnerships to achieve common goals

The international relations of Brazilian higher education institutes have increased in the last decade, particularly based on the institution of the Science Without Frontiers programme, managed by CNPq and Capes, which funded a large volume of international mobility programmes for students in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas. This programme was followed by the Institutional Internationalisation Programme (PrInt) of Capes, which finances higher education institute projects. This type of incentive with resources has strengthened the units responsible for international relations at higher education institutes and the formulation of strategic internationalisation plans, even though the organisation of internationalisation work is not highly professionalised. Internationalisation actions are associated with government initiatives such as the Student Programme Undergraduate and Postgraduate Agreement (PEC-G and PEC-PG) that trains students from developing countries in Brazilian higher education institutes. The movement of people is also supported by the existence of research networks and international associations of institutions, such as the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group (AUGM) and the Association of the Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean (UDUAL). In addition, some national associations are centred on internationalisation, such as the International Cooperation Group of Brazilian Universities (GCUB) and the Brazilian Association of International Education (FAUBAI). At continental level, the Latin American and Caribbean Meeting Space for Higher Education (ENALCES) emerged as a potential mechanism for convergence between governance practices. Despite the participation in regional entities, the historical pattern of exchange with northern countries persists. The relationship of Brazilian higher education institutions with institutions in the southern countries is still in its early stages. This situation is partly related to the instability of the regional initiatives, but also to the agendas of researchers who outline integration initiatives in the absence of institutional processes or coordinated national policies.

During the pandemic, experiences of internationalisation of the curriculum became more common, with digital mobility or through the incorporation of foreign academics’ participation. However, there was still a lack of systematisation and organisation. The internationalisation of extension activities continues to be limited, despite the great potential associated with values and practices cultivated in the Latin American region. Further collaboration is restricted by the language barrier, given the Brazilian academic community’s low level of Spanish, the language for regional integration, and English, the lingua franca of the global scientific community. Other limitations are the lack of systematic development of professional skills for internationalisation and an institutional culture of bureaucratic rigidity, associated with the lack of autonomy of higher education institutions before the legal system.

Colombia: a look at democracy and higher education

“Death is not democratic” stated South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2018) in his analysis of the social process triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Han stressed that people’s social class and status affects the probability that the pandemic has a catastrophic effect on their lives. The emergence of Covid-19 has revealed the inequalities that cause disproportionate effects on well-identified populations: poor people, those debilitated by informal work or unemployment, and those that belong to an ethnic group.

The value of these positions is that they draw attention to the fact that the crisis that is currently underway is not just a health crisis. The heart-breaking effects on our societies unfurl over existing social and economic conditions. These conditions have been hidden behind palliative discourses of “the fight against poverty”, “equal opportunities” and “social mobility”. However, the fragility of social policy is clear: after months of the pandemic, Colombia could return to the levels of poverty that were found 20 years ago and it may take 10 years for the country to return to one-digit unemployment rates. The supposed social conquests of what is known as the country of the “middle classes” have vanished, leaving exposed the harsh reality of persisting inequality: according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE, 2020a), 89% of deaths caused by Covid-19 were concentrated in the most socioeconomic disadvantaged classes of society (social strata 1, 2 and 3).

The field of higher education has not escaped this process. According to the Association of Colombian Universities (ASCUN), in the second semester of 2020, 25% of students dropped out. The pandemic worsened the unjust situation that characterised the country before the emergence of Covid-19: in Colombia only half of young people who should access higher education do so. Of these, only half manage to graduate. In other words, the higher education system does not function as an open door to the right to an education, but as a revolving door that ejects half of the people that enter. Furthermore, only 30% of those that enter university do so through institutions that are recognised as high quality. These conditions should be considered to assess the worrying prediction of ASCUN.

We should add that education in Colombia has never been democratic. Out of every 100 children who enter the first school year in Colombia, only 44 manage to graduate from upper secondary education. Of those, only 22 will enter higher education (8 in high quality universities), and only 11 will complete their studies (5 in the case of those who enter high quality universities). This means that approximately 93% of students in the country are facing some kind of barrier (exclusion, inequality, insufficient quality) that prevents them from fully exercising their right to an education up to the completion of further studies. In addition to the shortfalls in preschool education, we should add the structural problems suffered by upper secondary education and, obviously, higher education. Children under five and young people (aged between 14 and 28 years) are the population that is most exposed to violation of the right to education. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (2020), 33% of the young population did not study or work in 2020 (for women, this percentage stood at 42%; for men 23%).

The factors of inequality in the access to higher education are clearly identified in Colombia (Mora, 2016):

  • In Colombia, the highest educational level and the type of education received by a population segment is strongly correlated with their socioeconomic class. While 89% of people in classes 1 and 2 report a maximum educational level of upper secondary, 62% of people in classes 5 and 6 state that they have reached university level. This is even more problematic if we consider the high degree of social immobility that exists, as the probability that children have the same educational level as their parents is between 70% and 80%. Furthermore, young people who are in the fifth quintile of the population (the richest) have levels of educational coverage that are ten times higher than those in the first quintile (the poorest).
  • Although women reported a coverage rate similar to that of men in higher education and although the dropout rates that affect them are lower, disadvantageous gender relations persist within the higher education system (in terms of entry into “traditionally feminine” degrees) and in postgraduate studies. Indeed, women comprise 45% of teacher training graduates and only a third of those who complete a doctoral programme.
  • In terms of ethnicity, only 7.4% of indigenous adults attend a higher education institute, while the ratio for Afro-Colombians is one in every five. In contrast, 35% of young people who do not belong to a specific ethnic group attend a higher education programme.
  • This situation is worse if we consider that the group of young people who cannot continue their academic training in higher education or enter the job market (“ninis”: young people who neither study nor work) is much larger in Afro-descendent or indigenous populations. Indeed, in the national Afro-Colombian population, 30% of youth do not work, look for work or study. The figure for youth in indigenous populations stands at 42%. In contrast, in the population that is self-defined as not belonging to an ethnic group, 23% of youth are not working, looking for work or studying. These figures are also affected by the spatial gaps that separate rural and urban areas. If the analysis focuses only on the rural area, the “nini” indicator rises to 46% for the indigenous population, 42% for Afro-Colombians and 40% for the other youth. Notably, three quarters of the young indigenous population and a fourth of Afro-Colombians live in these areas, compared to a fifth of the remaining population.
  • In the population that reports having some kind of permanent disability, only 2.3% have a higher education level, whether it is technical, technological or professional, only 1% have completed their further studies and only 0.1% have taken postgraduate courses.

These are the populations that will suffer the effects of the pandemic in a disproportionate way. In addition, according to the figures of the National Administrative Department of Statistics and of the Economics of Education Laboratory (LEE) of the Pontifical Javeriana University, only 43% of people have access to a mobile or desktop internet connection, only 17% of students in rural colleges have internet and computer access, and 96% of municipalities are not ready to implement online classes.

It is clear that equal access, retention and educational achievement require an enormous budget commitment by the state. This is the only way to guarantee universal access to higher education and to reduce the inequalities in access to information and communication technologies. However, public universities are underfunded by $18 billion Colombian pesos. Their revenue from enrolment and services has also dropped: both items fell by 51% in March and 66% in April 2020. This worsened the financial limitations that public universities face and increased the negative effects of underfunding in the areas of coverage, educational quality and student welfare.

All of this has occurred in a context of widespread student demands for the state to cover the cost of enrolment in all public universities in the country (“Matricula Cero”, Zero Enrolment). Students from several universities started a hunger strike and organised mass protests to make this demand a reality. As a result of the pressure, part of the national government accepted the demand and announced a “Matrícula Cero” programme for 2020 and 2021. In 2021, 97% of students enrolled in public higher institutes (technical and technological universities and institutes) are expected to benefit; that is, around 695,000 students from socioeconomic classes 1, 2 and 3 (the most vulnerable in society).

In turn, private universities have asked the government for financial support to maintain the employee payroll, loan facilities for institutions and students, postponed payment of interest and repayments, and the definition of certain exemptions from tax payments. In addition, competition has increased – in some cases at the expense of educational quality considerations – to attract new students and maintain the enrolment numbers by defining incentives of reductions in the enrolment fee, promises of discounted enrolment fees in following semesters, payment of enrolment fees in instalments, financing of enrolment fees through the creation of solidarity funds, reductions in registration costs and partial or full grants.

All of this is happening in a context in which higher education institutions are facing an increase in costs associated with improving ICT infrastructure, university welfare, teacher training for the shift to online teaching and the application of biosecurity protocols. These efforts contrast with the weak response of the Colombian state to the pandemic. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), in a sample that analysed fiscal commitments to address the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, the Colombian state was in 11th position out of 16 countries. Countries such as El Salvador, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Bolivia surpassed Colombia in their efforts to channel public expenditure to minimise the social and economic impacts of Coronavirus (Cepal, 2020).

In addition to being weak, the measures adopted by the government do not represent any change in terms of the prevailing funding model. For students, an increase in financial aid to pay the enrolment of poor students has been announced (“Generation E” programme) and ICETEX has offered loans with subsidised interest rates and grace periods. Institutions have been offered a programme to subsidise 40% of the payroll and soft loans from Findeter to cover expenses and improve their equipment to adapt to online education. Does it make sense to resort to financing instruments that have shown their inability to resolve inequalities in the educational sector, and that form part of a model of social policy that cannot respond to the challenges generated by the pandemic?

In the field of higher education, the unwillingness of the Colombian government to reduce the persistent inequality gaps and the lack of bold actions to face the effects of the pandemic illustrate that for the state the lives of many young people are dispensable or less valuable than those of others. Is this not a hidden form of violence against certain sectors of the young population? Is this not a clear demonstration of the government’s disinterest in strengthening the Colombian democracy and making it more egalitarian?

These questions led to the emergence of a cycle of protests of great magnitude in April, May and June 2021 in Colombia. The leading figures in these protests are the country’s youth. Thousands of young people have taken to the streets to demand their rights, including guaranteeing higher education as a right and a common good. However, state repression has been brutal. Between 28 April and 11 June 2021, a total of 78 murders were recorded in the midst of the social protest (of which 24 can be attributed to public forces). A total of 1,522 people were wounded by the actions of state police. These records correspond mainly to young people (CDLAT, 2021). Human Rights Watch reported 68 murders, 419 missing people, 1,100 injuries to people and 5,500 people arrested by the state forces. In addition, it detected the indiscriminate use of lethal and “less” lethal weapons by state agents (Human Rights Watch, 2021).

Democracy in times of Covid-19 is not only threatened by the implementation of authoritarian devices and extreme surveillance of populations. It is also besieged by our societies’ lack of capacity to equally distribute access to the value and power of knowledge. Education provides qualifications, status, knowledge, capacities and values that, if they are distributed unequally, produce and reproduce the relationships of power of some social groups over others. It is in the division of power that we should assess the distributional impact of education: the construction of true democracies will depend on this distribution. The Colombian democracy is not only threatened by the predominance of authoritarian ways of managing the health, political and social crises that the country is going through. It is also threatened by the reproduction of inequalities come from the past that are clearly projected on the future in the field of higher education.

Reconsidering public education in Costa Rica under the current restructuring of the state and in the future

Costa Rica is a Central American country whose socioeconomic and political conditions have deteriorated systematically over the last four decades. In this period, as in the rest of the Latin American and Caribbean countries, structural adjustment policies were implemented. Subsequently, the model of capitalist accumulation with a neoliberal approach was more deeply entrenched.

The financial crisis has been experienced most strongly since 2015. This is because the supposed solutions to the crisis that have been imposed by different governments, in particular the government of Carlos Alvarado Quesada from the Citizens' Action Party who rose to power in 2018, are part of a solution of state reform[7] that attacks public institutions and the working sector. This has increased inequality and poverty, especially in the context of the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This situation is evident in the figures presented by the National Institute of Statistics and Census. In the third semester of 2019, before the pandemic, the labour force participation rate was 61.8%, the employment rate was 54.7%, the unemployment rate was 11.4% and the underemployment rate was 11.6% (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, 2019). In the quarter from May to July 2021, these figures changed significantly, as the labour force participation rate nationally was 59.9% and the employment rate 49.4% (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, 2021), while the national unemployment rate stood at 17.4% and the underemployment rate was 15.5% (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, 2021). In all these items, women were more affected as they had higher rates of unemployment and underemployment.

Costa Rica is a country whose economy is based on trade and services (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, 2021). It was greatly affected by the restriction measures adopted due to the pandemic. However, it was also affected by the lack of protection measures driven by powerful sectors associated with the Costa Rican Federation of Chambers and Associations of Private Enterprise (UCCAEP) and related groups that have considerable lobbying capacity and participation within the Government of the Republic itself. These are the same sectors that during the pandemic promoted and benefited from labour market flexibility that led to suspension of contracts, reduction in the working day and dismissals without any repercussions for companies. They were also behind the increase in taxes for poor and middle class population segments and public institutions, whose funding has been cut. In addition to these measures, salary increments were frozen in the public sector. Proposals were constantly made to impose more taxes on the working sector and exempt or eliminate taxes and social responsibilities of big businesses, reduce working days, increase working hours and close or privatise institutions, without establishing any far-reaching palliative measures for those who are most affected. At the same time, tax avoidance and evasion was facilitated for companies, while serious cases of corruption between private companies and employees of public institutions became known (Núñez, 2021).

In addition, the policies that the government has implemented to address the health crisis have been contradictory in terms of the need to preserve people’s life and health. To avoid infections, the government introduced quarantine, physical distancing, hand washing protocols, suspension of activities and reduction in the capacity of premises, among other measures. However, the measures were relaxed depending on the needs for commerce to open and the promotion of tourist activity.

Thus, closure and distancing measures have varied over time and given way to measures that are considered necessary for “economic reopening”. First, came the policy of “El martillo y el baile” (the hammer and the dance; Miranda, 2020), which involved commerce opening (the dance) or closing (the hammer) depending on the health situation. After this came “Costa Rica trabaja y se cuida” (Costa Rica works and looks after itself; Chavarría, 2020), which was based on greater opening and individual responsibility to avoid infection with Covid-19. At the same time, the vaccination process has been executed slowly, as the country depends on purchases made from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, which arrive in small quantities every week, and on donations.

Many people have lost loved ones, their jobs, their livelihood, their future projects and their physical and mental health, but public policy has not focused on caring for life and protecting people. Protecting people does not seem to be a key topic for the parties that are preparing to start the electoral campaign in 2022, most of which promise to further plunder public funds.

This is the context in which policies of funding cuts in public education are promoted at preschool, primary and secondary level, which are governed by the Ministry of Public Education (MEP), and at higher education level, which is comprised of five public universities whose policies are coordinated by the National Council of Rectors (CONARE).

Basic preschool, primary and secondary public education have been adversely affected by the financial crisis before the pandemic, the difficulties caused by the pandemic and the negative impact of the state’s restructuring policies.

At the start of the pandemic, school buildings were closed and education was moved online. However, limited internet coverage, a lack of equipment and inadequate conditions affected around 425,000 students, most of whom live in poverty (Rodríguez, 2021). One in every four teachers did not have an internet connection (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021) or training to use digital tools (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021). Furthermore, 58% of families stated that they were not ready to support the distance education of their school-age members (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021). Shortfalls in services and physical infrastructure (for example a lack of drinking water) were also faced. A total of 64% of education centres (2,996) do not have suitable infrastructure and health conditions to address the pandemic, and 87,410 education centres were under health orders in 2021, which are attended by approximately 21% of the enrolled population (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021). In addition, difficulties were noted in access to education for students at education centres in rural areas.

The Ministry of Public Education established a series of measures and alternative platforms for communication between teachers, students and parents, and the delivery of food parcels to around 430,000 students who normally attend school dining halls. All of this was carried out with the support of the education centres’ teaching and administrative staff, whose main task was to try to avoid infections and keep students linked to the education system (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021).

In April 2021, 80% of a total of 1,206,800 students in 5,276 educational institutes and services attended face-to-face classes. Classes were subsequently suspended due to conflicts about careless policies in the face of Covid infections of education staff (Castro, 2021). The academic year was restarted in July 2021. Out of all the education centres, 67% currently work in blended mode and 33% face-to-face (Dirección de Prensa y Relaciones Públicas, Ministerio de Educación Pública, 2021). However, considerable shortfalls have been identified in the processes of public education compared to those of private education, where classes were not suspended (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021) and students have more resources to adapt to online education. These factors did not prevent the Ministry of National Planning from proposing cuts of 300 billion colones from the education budget for 2022 (Chacón, 2021). This adds to the application of the “Fiscal Rule”[8], which in itself reduces the current expenditure of public institutions (Molina Manzo et al. 2021).

In the five public higher education institutes, online classes were also imposed from 12 March 2020. Students and teachers had to adapt their courses to online platforms that had not been used frequently in the academic population, except in the State University of Distance Education (UNED). This caused disruptions, uncertainty and anxiety. The authorities indicated that the academic year should continue, despite the fact that some students and teachers had no internet connection, equipment or suitable spaces for carrying out the processes of distance education. In the University of Costa Rica (UCR), student residences closed abruptly without supporting or monitoring the student body from rural areas who had to return to their places of origin. Furthermore, the amount of grants was cut.

For students who had no equipment or internet connection, universities gradually managed to provide Sim cards and tablets using loans from institutional funds and donations of the teaching staff. Instead of a drop in enrolment, an increase was observed, particularly in UNED and UCR (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021).

However, the fatigue, stress and psychosocial impact on the student body can be seen and there are mental health alerts in the university communities. As a result, universities must implement mental health measures (Vida UCR, 15 July 2021). However, these measures do not address the complexity of the current situation in terms of the pandemic and an education system tied to banking and focused on productivism and competition that does not generate wellbeing (Arce and Caamaño, 2021). Although the grant programme has been maintained, it is under the threat of cuts due to the implementation of the “Fiscal Rule” (Guevara, 20 April 2021), and systematic reductions in universities’ budgets.

In effect, public higher education institutions have been subjected to a series of budget cuts since 2018, which have been justified by the economic crisis. However, these cuts form part of attacks made by political and business sectors, central government, the Legislative Assembly and the traditional media on the public institutional structure and particularly on universities. On several occasions, the need to eliminate university autonomy and academic freedom has even been proposed (Caamaño, 2020a; 2020b). The purpose of these attacks is to further develop the model of corporate university, whose agenda is dictated by companies and the government.

Governed by the dictates of international organisations, the government, the National Council of Rectors (CONARE) and members of the academic community, the universities in Costa Rica have accepted the corporate or university-business model that is presented as the ideal in other parts of the world, to compete on the international knowledge market. Several mechanisms have been implemented to transform the Latin American model described in the Córdoba Reform. These include “a) commercialisation through assessment mechanisms; b) the structure of privatisation through patents, copyright, innovation and entrepreneurship; c) managerialisation; and d) labour market flexibility” (Caamaño, 2020b, pp. 106-107).

The University of Costa Rica is an institution that has many structural inequalities. It has 65 to 70% of its staff on temporary contracts (León, Kikut and Villalobos, 2020), maintains outsourcing of cleaning services under high levels of job insecurity (Muñoz, 2020), and gender inequalities exist (Mesa, 2018; Chaves, 2021; Córdoba, 2021), despite the humanistic discourse that is still maintained in some sectors.

It is a university that has worked to find the way to save itself from the adverse political context by trying to form partnerships with powerful sectors rather than with those who suffer from the plundering. Faced with the latest flashpoints in the struggle, the institution officially kept a distance in the strike against the Fiscal Plan in 2018 and against the processes for approval of the Framework Law of Public Employment. This reveals the internal contradictions and resistance of a university sector that still sees the link with society as a fundamental factor for universities (Caamaño, 2020c).

In fact, the universities made an economic contribution during the pandemic, as they accepted a budget cut of 48 billion colones to help to resolve the health crisis (Sociedad, 2020). In addition, in the health area, with the opening of vaccination centres, the universities helped with “production of cotton buds, lab coats, protective masks, prototypes of ventilators, protective capsules for intubation, serum from hyperimmunised horse plasma and saliva tests to detect Covid-19” (Programa Estado de la Nación, 2021). They have contributed to education, tourism, business development, psychosocial support in crisis situations, and other areas. However, in the same way that the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) – which provides support nationally during the health crisis – has been attacked, it has been suggested that the universities have salaries that are too high and that they do not control their spending. This criticism has been made despite the fact the universities have applied measures to reduce salaries (Córdoba, 2021).

Even with this adverse outlook, the universities do not stop to think of themselves in a way that goes beyond the economistic perspective that is imposed not only from outside but also from within, among powerful sectors associated with international organisations and the government.

Perspectives for the future?

The dominant sectors, led by the guidelines of the OECD, an organisation that Costa Rica joined this year, and the World Bank, force universities to continue along the same path. Efforts are focused on standardisation through assessment, which ends up being a goal in itself. To achieve this, Chile is taken as a model and the Faro and Pisa tests are applied (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021), despite the difficult situation of the education system in material terms. The dominant sectors propose increasing the commercialisation of universities to obtain funding (Programa Estado de la Educación, 2021), which would eventually eliminate university autonomy, critical thinking and academic freedom. This is the approach of the State Education Programme (2021), the “think tank” financed by CONARE to repeat in each annual report what has already been established by the international organisations mentioned above. Its view is economicist and it does not focus on education as a right but, as proposed by the World Bank, on assessment, standardisation and control (CLADE, 2021).

In the context of the crisis, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the pre-electoral year, the pressure to reduce the national budget is great. Opportunities to change the policies of dispossession in the short or medium term cannot be seen.

To counteract this discouraging trend, the proposal made by academic sectors and organisations that still see education as a right should be focused on an in-depth discussion of the model of university and society that has been promoted; a discussion that the university authorities avoid.

This open, democratic discussion should take into account all levels: teachers, students and administrative staff, as the first objective should be to democratise academia. Only in this way can the need to decommercialize and return to public ownership be put forward, so that education is defended as a human right and a common good, rather than considered merchandise.

The aim is to work on the crisis that is being experienced in society and education, and to find forms of management that respect human rights, which include the labour rights of staff who work in education institutions. To achieve this, we can start by attacking the structural inequalities established in the statutes, regulations, procedures and bureaucratic practices.

This process involves casting out the neutral, managerial language of universities today and instead describing the inequalities within and outside higher education institutions. It also entails introducing in strategic plans and academic programmes an alternative model focused on working with society from a plural perspective. Such a model considers local and national needs and connection with the world from a decolonial approach that defends people as feeling and thinking beings.

For this reason, universities cannot declare themselves neutral in the face of government policies, as they have been doing for some time. Instead, they should fight on the side of the social sectors that seek the common good.

To sum up, we return to what has been stated elsewhere:

“A structural change is required, a review of programmes, of academic loads and the employment system, but also a proposal to change the productivist, neoliberal model and the role that universities play in the generation of another model of society that points towards human wellbeing. It is time for us to stop looking the other way and to accept the challenge of generating structural challenges rather than merely embellishing the crisis!” (Arce and Caamaño, 2021).

​​​​​​​Reform in higher education in Mexico: From discussion to action

Overcoming the current levels of social inequality is the main challenge to be able to carry out real education reform in Mexico. Reform is only possible if it can be expressed in a state policy that is alternative, intercultural, associated with the public good, fair and sustainable in the mid to long term.

In some countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, as is now being proposed in Mexico, free higher education and its progressive universalisation is established in legislation and is a constitutional requirement. It is accompanied by measures that are open to the access and retention of school age groups that experience inequality in the exercise of their fundamental rights, through compensatory and social welfare policies (for example, an extensive system of grants or affirmative action programmes focused on the inclusion of sectors that are traditionally marginalised, such as country people, indigenous people and Afro-descendants).

From a comparative perspective and considering the changes that are arising, the efforts that are being made should be focused on defining a new education reform in Mexico, as the new government is progressive and anti-neoliberal. This government is promoting new laws in the area of higher education, knowledge, science and technology that are centred on achieving greater access and free education, to introduce a new national education reform and obtain the necessary scientific independence.

However, in this context, the capacity of the higher education system appears to be segmented in a socio-institutional way, in direct relation with the various population segments. Thus, the son or daughter of a worker or a peasant farmer will have some opportunities to access basic education or a technical career. However, they are less likely to be able to enter and stay in higher education. In contrast, the offspring of the upper-middle and upper classes can enter, remain and rise through all the educational levels if this is what they wish, whether it is free or not.

Therefore, in general, it can be seen that the tendency to commercialise and segment the higher education system – not its “diversification” as presented in the Anglo-Saxon world and in countries with greater education coverage – has increased. However, this has not helped to compensate for inequality and it has not provided the opportunity to reach greater equity in access and retention of highly vulnerable or disadvantaged sectors of the education system, such as indigenous, Afro-descendent, rural and very poor urban populations or women in these sectors.

The above indicates that inequality has prevailed over efforts and policies that have not managed to get to the heart of the issue. In other words, progress has not been made beyond the mere declaration in favour of free education or affirmative action policies. This is because the implementation of effective mechanisms of substantial improvement in the distribution of income, to foster equity and fight inequality, has not been established as a priority.

The terms of the debate

The current proposal for educational reform in Mexico (2018–2021) establishes that the state should guarantee the right to all education of a public nature. However, there are differences in how the legislation has been drawn up to achieve a shift from the phase of massification to the phase of universalisation of higher education. In other words, the legislation states that it is compulsory to offer this education level to all those who request it, only on the basis of their merits, but it does not manage to overcome the inequality that exists in terms of their socioeconomic or geographic conditions, their ethnicity, race or gender.

Therefore, a distinction should be made in the definitions of state policy regarding two concepts: the compulsory nature of higher education and its free status.

In international law, the state is obliged to make higher education accessible, above all when the desired universal coverage has been reached in basic and secondary education. This comes under a concept that emphasises a progressive transition, in which free education appears as the main factor for this gradual process to reach a situation of universalisation.

In Mexico, this sequence of scaling up has often been halted or cut back, with cycles of contraction and highs and lows in public resources and in investment in higher education. Dramatic changes in the orientation of education policy in the last three governments of PAN and PRI (Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto) also meant that agreements on responsibility to guarantee a fundamental right have been violated or limited.

Considering the situation, actions undertaken during these governments focused on expanding coverage, commercialisation and an assessment of the system’s quality but not on retention. They were even less focused on guaranteeing satisfactory graduation for the progressive entry of higher university graduates into the various professional job markets; the promotion of a new “education model” (as proposed unsuccessfully during the six-year term of Peña Nieto) to generate fundamental changes for the continuous cognitive progress of students; the conditions for constructing an alternative curriculum; and even less the production and transfer of new science and technology knowledge.

Rather, what was a constant was a series of programmes that were not very effective over time and did not manage to expand the social capacities of comprehensive learning. Neither did they manage to have a positive impact on economic development rates, which would be expected to be generated by an improvement in education systems and knowledge worldwide.

Therefore, based on the experience of the past, the terms of the debate on universalisation, the coordination of a higher education system and its free status – which are the main areas covered in the current government’s higher education reform – should shift from discourse to action. This could be achieved through mid- to long-term action programmes in the midst of the current general uncertainty (that has been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic). To add another aspect of the current circumstances, in the context of a lack of organisation in the definitions of state policies, the current six-year term has been marked by the frequency and recurrence of social conflicts in the education system, above all led by students and women (when a common trend in the past was the concentration of conflicts among teachers). All of these conflicts have been related in some way to the topic of free education, access or violence.

In the exact opposite position, until the shift from words to action occurs, what has been imposed is the idea that education is not and should not be free. The argument is that what is offered is a service, albeit public, of individual benefit. Therefore, a logic has been upheld that continuously grows, spreads and is reproduced, with the argument that free education favours those who are already favoured or those who are in a position to pay for their education. In this argument, it is considered that free education gives more guarantees to the richer classes than to the more disadvantaged, or the rights are violated.

In international legislation it is clearly established that the state is obliged to guarantee free higher education. However, the willingness of institutions and the main academic actors alone, the lean economic conditions and profound inequality in which we live (which is a central topic in the Sustainable Development Goals), the conflicts, rampant violence, increasing migration and the inequity in which education systems move represent enormous challenges but above all tremendous difficulties to achieve these goals as established for 2030.

This has led to a very interesting agenda that covers topics including increasing access to more young people and adults and constructing a knowledge society that has scientific independence. Given the close relationship between knowledge output, new paradigms of learning and research, and the interaction of people from different cultural backgrounds, universities’ social responsibility to the public in general is a crucial part of any future agenda.

Higher education reform: redesigning the system

In this section, we evaluate the legislative proposals that were presented and approved by the Chambers of Deputies and Senators in 2019, during the first year of the government of the presidency of López Obrador. We look at their main scope and content and their fundamental principles and objectives.

The starting point for the proposal to carry out a new education reform was the repeal of the first “structural” reform of the previous six-year term, the educational reform. The new reform was proposed to overcome what was seen as a failed attempt (another of many) to overcome decades of backwardness; to introduce comprehensive change coordinated from within; and to create a true, coordinated, inclusive education system with gender equality and excellence in the current six-year term. The terms of what the reform would achieve in higher education are presented, with their objectives, breaking and turning points, and how they would be implemented over time in the short, medium and long term, based on the approval of national legislation on this subject (the Third Article of the Constitution). Likewise, a series of recommendations of a programmatic nature are presented, which the author considers could be included in the framework to redesign the higher education system in Mexico.

No previous reform has managed to have a real impact on the purposes, principles and processes of the educational task, particularly in reference to what is learnt, the methods, languages, content, curriculum, teaching and administrative practices, improvement of infrastructure and consistency of school pathways from preschool to postgraduate level. Consequently, what is now faced is an enormous task because what could have been reverted at some point was not done and aspects that have worsened are the greatest challenges facing the proposal to carry out real educational reform, as is the aim in the current six-year term of the president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As an example, between 1990 and 2016, the number of public higher education institutions in Mexico increased by 114%, but that of private institutions rose by 450%. This makes Mexico the country with the greatest expansion in the private sector worldwide. It does not have the highest concentration ratio of private provision, as this is found in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Chile or other countries of Latin America. However, it is the country that has had the fastest growth in the private sector in just a few decades. In addition, a large number of these private schools do not have the formal registration that is essential to teach higher education courses, let alone to do so with the quality that is required. Only 3,000 programmes at this level are registered in the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), while 20,000 are not registered and operate fraudulently or irregularly.

The outlook worsens if we relate these conditions of inequality with the various segments of the labour market, with an impact on those who only have upper-secondary or degree level education (completed or not). The relationship between graduation and entry into the formal labour market is better for those who have social relations in the highest income segments, with greater cultural capital, who live in the more exclusive urban areas and have a postgraduate qualification.

México is one of the OECD countries with the lowest spending per student on higher education. This has a negative impact on retention and graduation. Around 50% of those who enter this education level complete 100% of the requirements that are included in the curriculum on their area; the remaining students do not finish their degree.

In terms of the organisation of what is learnt and taught, in general, the structure of public and private institutions is managed through professional pathways and disciplines. Cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary academic innovations are scarce, as is the task of research, which is concentrated in just a few universities that are mainly public, national, federal or state institutions. The relationship between research and innovation in the context of highly complex application is also poor and very limited.

Currently, the number of people served by higher education stands at 4.3 million students (66.5% in public institutes and 33.5% in private), which corresponds to 39% of the age group at this level.

Public universities have the largest number of research institutions. These benefit from the support provided by the National System of Researchers (SNI), which is comprised of over 30,000 academics (21.5 people per 100,000 inhabitants). This group expanded from 5,700 people in 1990 to 28,000 in 2018. Research grantholders number 450. By research area, only 6,800 of the 30,000 academics work in the area of social sciences and humanities.

The science and technology capabilities by states in the Republic are very uneven. Fifty per cent of the investment in National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) programmes (for example: national laboratories, international mobility grants, grants for national postgraduate studies, SRI researchers, programmes recognised in the National Register of Quality Postgraduate Programmes, CONACYT centres or research incentive programmes) is concentrated in just 5 or 6 states.

The topic of financing was and continues to be one of the areas of greatest conflict in the relation between universities and the state. Public subsidies, which are concentrated in universities that operate independently or depend strongly on state government resources, have experienced decades of fluctuations in the amount they are allocated, as defined by the different governments. The 1% of GDP that was agreed as necessary by the Chamber of Deputies years ago has never been reached. In some cases, the operating conditions, year on year, have reached such an alarming level that at least 12 of these universities, particularly state institutes, are in a state of financial and operational crisis that has led to paralysis and frequent problems.

However, the main problems of social quality and relevance, inclusion and equity, and reversal of the conditions of inequality in access to the system persist and have been deepened, both at the level of public responsibility and that of private responsibility, which has achieved considerable dynamism and growth.

In search of what is lost: the core areas of the higher education reform of López Obrador’s government

The terms presented in the education reform laws, in the amendment of the Third Article of the Constitution and in the General Law of Higher Education (see the version of October 2019), are supported by principles and objectives in a vision and a public policy to reverse the conditions of backwardness in the country, as mentioned above. The aim is to support a great transformation in the national education system.

In May 2019, the constitutional reform of the Third Article was approved. This revoked the previous attempt at a neoliberal reform that never materialised, for the good of the country. In this new formulation, the compulsory nature of higher education is established as well as the gradual transition to free education throughout the entire system (as already established in some countries of Latin America). It is proposed that the higher level of education should be governed under the terms set out in Parts VII and X of this constitutional article.

Part VII indicates: “Universities and all other higher education institutions upon which the law has conferred autonomy, shall have the powers and responsibility to govern themselves; they shall carry out their purposes of educating, doing research and promoting culture in accordance with the principles established in this article, respecting freedom to teach and do research and freedom to analyse and discuss ideas; they shall determine their curricula and programmes; they shall establish the terms for the engagement, promotion and tenure of their academic personnel; and they shall manage their assets […] labour relationships both with academic personnel and with management personnel shall be governed by Section A of Article 123 of this Constitution, under the terms and in accordance with the prescriptions established by the Federal Labour Law, subject to the nature pertaining to a specially regulated work, in a manner consistent with the autonomy, freedom of teaching and research and the goals of the institutions referred herein.”

Part X of the Third Article of the Constitution states: “The compulsory nature of higher education is the responsibility of the state. Federal and local authorities shall establish policies to promote inclusion, retention and continuity, under the terms indicated in the law. In addition, they shall provide means of access to this type of education for people who meet the requirements stipulated by the public institutions.”

In addition, for the higher level, various provisional articles are included in which it is established: “The state legislatures… shall have a period of one year to harmonise the legal framework on this subject, in accordance with this decree.” The fourteenth provisional article states: “To comply with the principle of compulsory higher education, the necessary resources shall be included in the federal budget and the budgets of federative entities and municipalities, under the terms of Parts VIII and X of the Third Article of this Constitution; in addition, a special federal fund shall be established to guarantee in the long term the resources required to ensure the compulsory nature of the services referred to in this article, and the long-term nature of the infrastructure.”

With this education reform initiative, the investment that López Obrador’s government should reach is 1% of GDP by the end of his six-year term. In addition, coverage should increase from the current 39% of the corresponding age group to 55% of the population in this group, so that the gross enrolment ratio approaches a level of “universalisation”.

To reach these goals, as and other more specific ones, during October 2019, the General Law of Higher Education (LGES) began to be discussed. This would replace the Law on Coordination of Higher Education of 1978.

Together with the approval of a new Third Article to revoke the article referred to above from Peña Nieto’s six-year term, and its secondary laws, LGES is positioned as one of the most advanced regulatory and programmatic initiatives in the history of Mexico, the region, and among many similar initiatives worldwide. This initiative aims to reflect the strategy of a historical Fourth Transformation in the country. Some of its terms are highlighted below.

  • It supports the principles discussed by most of the universities of Latin American and the Caribbean at the Regional Conferences organised by UNESCO (CRES-2008 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia and CRES-2018 in Córdoba, Argentina), which are unique in the world due to high participation and the agreements and contents that are addressed[9]. The principles are that higher education is a public and social good and a duty of the state; and independent self-governance of universities and the integrity of a coordinated, regulated system are guaranteed. In addition, it supports the conviction that education is not merchandise, so private institutions should operate on a non-profit basis.
  • The state is the guarantor of the gradual transition to inclusion for everyone at this level of the education system and of its free status. This is achieved with full respect for human rights, gender equality, training that guarantees lifelong learning, the coordination of sciences and technologies with humanities, sports, culture and the arts, the dialogue of knowledge and social responsibility in the performance of academic activity.
  • It guarantees an appropriate and increasing budget, to reach 1% of GDP for the sector and for research and scientific-technological and humanistic innovation, with a long-term outlook.
  • It is committed to coordinating the functions of universities with the development and wellbeing of local, regional and national communities, through continuous improvement in the social quality of higher education, its expansion and diversification; the promotion of affirmative programmes for inclusion, retention and graduation; and seeking the best and most stable entry of graduates into the job market. In addition, resources focused on continuous improvement of the infrastructure and formation of human talent are defined.
  • It guarantees a gradual transition in the universalisation of higher education, its free status, the obligatory nature of access, and retention.
  • From the perspective of aims and purposes, it is established that all the functions and tasks should be focused on horizontal coordination through a higher education and research system (this concept of “coordination” is the term that appears most throughout the law but it is also the concept that is most complicated strategically, as shown above).
  • It defines the types and levels of higher education institutions and refers in detail to the subsystem of Normal Schools and Institutes of Teacher Training, given the relevance of what is referred to as the professionalisation of teaching and its projection over time.

In August 2020, a new version of LGES was presented. This version supports the original spirit of the new higher education reform and its comprehensive, progressive nature. However, it also presents some changes that should be highlighted. For example, the importance of the coordination and even integration of a higher education system is lessened. However, the law still highlights the creation of a National Council that would have enough authority and legitimacy to implement strategies and mechanisms of coordination, cooperation and integration at national level.

Notably, the concept of “public good” has also been eliminated and the notion that education is not merchandise, which was presented in the previous version. This distances the new version from the principles and agreements that had been reached at the large regional meetings of UNESCO, described above. The change represents a step back from what the universities of Latin America and the Caribbean have achieved and constructed in a very consistent way, which gives the region identity and a stance compared to the situation in other parts of the world, where commercialisation and academic capitalism are being imposed as the predominant models.

Similarly, and also recently, the Education Sectoral Programme 2020–2024 was published in the Official Federal Gazette (6 July 2020). This programme is aligned with the National Development Plan 2019–2024, in which six priorities are established under the slogan of providing “education for everyone, with nobody left behind”.

The conclusive analysis characterising the existing educational backwardness is noteworthy. It describes: “corruption in the education system […] fictitious schools, false diplomas, a lack of school manuals, discretionary granting of awards, sale of places, irregularities in public spending and tailor-made tenders.”

The LGES also highlights the levels of regional, socioeconomic and cultural inequalities, and describes negative indicators of quality and efficacy throughout the education system. This is demonstrated by a population that is poorly qualified and the gap between what is learnt and the type of work that large segments of the population carry out. It is considered that an education supported by the aforementioned principles will drive social transformations within the school and the community, so that “learning and knowledge will become the cornerstone of prosperity and wellbeing in Mexico”.

Regarding education level, an increase from the 42.7% gross enrolment ratio in 2020 to 50% in 2024 is planned. This would mean that the population of enrolled students would reach 5.5 million. The goal is to reach universalisation in 2040 with a 65% gross enrolment ratio (6.7 million students).

However, in comparative terms, in Mexico (and perhaps in other parts of the world) there is no recent experience of an education reform that has been implemented purely by issuing, discussion and approving a law on higher and university education, regardless of how advanced and focused the law may be. The most difficult task comes when the laws, regulations and programmes have been approved and when there is clarity in how to introduce a transformation strategy into the system of knowledge generation, teaching, culture, science and technology.

The General Law of Higher Education (April 2021) was approved in the context of a public policy with high acceptance and legitimacy, as found in Mexico. However, to be able to show that the relation between what is proposed and what is put into practice can be shaped by the general frameworks that have been defined and with a strategic and programmatic vision that has a broad scope and high ambitions, a change strategy is required based on the broadest principles and paradigms of modern education. Programmes are also needed that are feasible, operational and have an impact in the short- and mid-term. The plan for the future is established; now the political will and necessary action is required to achieve it.

To create a coordinated system of higher education, with a defined operating structure at local, state and national level and objectives that draw on experiences that could be useful as comparative references, the great debate that has arisen on public education policy, particularly at the level on which this article is based, must overcome decades of persistent failures. It must overcome institutions’ lack of action in response to their precarious conditions, their constant internal conflicts, a lack of financial resources and a lack of leadership that goes beyond the position of the rector or the officials on duty. It must support the aforementioned principles and manage to create a short, mid- and long-term strategy, with enough resources to implement this. Initiatives should be coordinated in the areas of teaching, learning, the organisation and management of knowledge, curricular structures and the modern way to do science. True national coordination should be developed and the main institutions should take initiative to adopt tasks of transformation. This would result in the country finally being able to depend on an interinstitutional framework of higher education, research, culture and science that promotes a society in which knowledge is a real source of shared, inclusive, collaborative, intercultural and dynamic development, to reach a new phase of wellbeing, with no violence and the opportunity for all young people and adults to train as citizens with extensive culture and civility.

Gradual transition is a predominant concept in the definition of the new state policy during the current regime. However, this is very different, as this article aims to show, from guaranteeing the full application of human rights in higher education systems. This is particularly true if we critically assess the advances made from the perspective of mobility and free education, in terms of integration or interinstitutional and horizontal coordination at national level.

Therefore, the main challenge is to enable universities to make their voices heard at national level, so that they can promote initiatives centred on combating financial and social inequality. The focus should be not only access to all education levels, but also retention, achievement of a suitable and relevant profile so that learning capabilities can be developed throughout life, and the guarantee of a decent job for the university’s professionals. In addition, universities should present alternatives from within to promote far-reaching changes in their curricula, in the organisation of their cognitive processes, in the management of modern knowledge, and in research associated with scientific independence and social innovation. In this way, the topic of inequality becomes a focal point of institutions’ contribution in favour of affirmative inclusion policies and the elimination of the great differences that have taken root alarmingly in Mexico, which continue to be a blot that calls into question current universities, on the basis of the principles and postulates that they hold most dear.

In general terms, in the evaluation of this reform initiative, it should be considered that the country continues to have a disjointed, unstructured system that is diverse but not complementary, autonomous but not cooperative, increasingly complex but not for this reason more active or able to achieve the development of a knowledge society that is sustainable and provides wellbeing for everyone.

The definition of a public policy for the future should consider the minimum requirements of a socio-political, paradigmatic construct (on the organisation and management of new knowledge and learning). If not, universities will find themselves with a contradiction because all references will be to the present instead of what they want to obtain within a future time frame.

The starting point should be to uphold, as a principle, education as a public and social good rather than education that can be commercialised. This will stop education from becoming a mere service or merchandise, and schools a place for profit. For the next generations, deciding to maintain and reproduce a “blended” system (public and for profit) such as that which exists now, where the guarantee of “quality” education is subject to the collection of fees or payments made by families or students, would represent a total setback.

[1] In the analysis in this article, we do not address science policies. However, these kept in step with university policies and followed similar trends. They included an initial set of initiatives to “recover” what had been “lost” in the previous administrations and in the hierarchisation of the activity. Then, policies were introduced to restructure and inject funds into the budget, to expand, to improve infrastructure and to support the promotion of international networks of scientific collaboration. Finally, they reached a certain notion of the right to science as a step to promoting social and economic development. This included a discussion of the relevance, usefulness and purpose of scientific and technological research to many areas, production sectors and social agents; the approval of regulations for assessment; and even the promotion of non-commercial open access to the results of research financed with public funds. This action was not without certain contradictions, particularly regarding the internalisation of internationalised assessment criteria (Perrotta, 2017a, 2017b).

[2] In 2008, a process of debate was started to decide on new university regulations. However, this was thwarted by political circumstances that went beyond the university framework. In 2015, driven by the educator and former representative Adriana Puiggros, a partial reform of the law from the neoliberal years was defined to guarantee in legislation the conception of the university as a right in Argentina, its cost-free status, unrestricted access and commitment to society.

[3] Three goals guide the action of NEIES: promote reflection and knowledge generation in higher education in MERCOSUR associated with integration; promote research on the contributions of higher education to the integration of MERCOSUR countries; and propose initiatives and actions that contribute to strengthening the process of formulating public policies and guiding decision-making in higher education in MERCOSUR (Perrotta, 2018).

[5] The Programme for the Promotion of the Argentine University (PPUA) announced various calls for the formation of international academic networks. By 2013, it had financed over 500 network projects in the six calls that were held. By 2015, two further calls had been held. Since then, the annual call to networks has been discontinued.

[6] Conference proceedings available at:

[7] This is what the central government has been doing along with the Legislative Assembly through a series of laws, such as that approved in 2018, called the Law for the Strengthening of Public Finances (No. 9635), whose “Fiscal Rule” systematically reduces the budget of public institutions; the Law to increase legal certainty on strike action and its proceedings (No. 9808), approved in 2020, which criminalises social protest; and the Draft of the Framework Law on Public Employment (File No. 19431) that is still under discussion despite the fact that the Constitutional Court ruled that it had 35 unconstitutionalities (Pomareda, 2021), including violation of university autonomy and disrespect for the separation of the Republic’s three branches of power.

[8] The Fiscal Rule is part of the Law on Strengthening Public Finances, approved in 2018. “Articles 5, 9 and 10 of Title IV, entitled Fiscal Responsibility, of the aforementioned Law, establish that increases in budget spending (current or total) shall be limited according to the behaviour of two macroeconomic variables. The first is the average year-on-year nominal GDP growth rate for the last four years prior to the budget formulation for the corresponding year. The second is the ratio of the of Central Government’s total debt over the nominal GDP for the financial year prior to the budget formulation” (Ministerio de Hacienda, 2021). A large strike was organised against this law, in which education unions fought until the last moment and were criminalised and, until today, attacked for the suspension of the school year in 2018, as did the State Education Programme (2021) that, despite the difficulties in public education, justified the cuts in its budget.

[9] See: Didriksson, Axel (2019). Balance la CRES-2018. OEI, Madrid.

General Conclusions of the chapter

Unlike the situation in other areas of the planet, the universities of Latin America and the Caribbean have constructed their unique past and present on the basis of full institutional autonomy and collegial, participative governance. The predominant model, with considerable differences between countries, is that of public higher education. They are one of the few social institutions that have repeatedly adopted a critical stance or mobilised (particularly their main actors: students and teachers) against brutality, injustice and the authoritarian excesses of governments or the rich and powerful, whether they are local, national or international. However, they have also mobilised to defend the public good, freedom and equality, human rights and even their own existence.

In recent decades, universities have faced the veiled and often blatant violation of their autonomy through external assessment and accreditation bodies and the imposition of indicators that lead them to compete with each other, to obtain the scraps of extra resources labelled as programmes of “quality and excellence”. They have also had to face the trend of growing privatisation up to now, and above all commercialisation, which ensured over time the reproduction of class and elite interests that do not represent the interests of the majority.

This information is fundamental, not to say extraordinary, given that it refers to the region that has the highest rate of private sector involvement in education in the world, even though it is in the part of the planet with the greatest inequality and inequity.

Despite everything, the public university continues to have the highest participation of cohorts of social demand for admission; a monopoly on knowledge generation and scientific and technological development; and a monopoly on innovation in course offering at curricular level and in the graduate profile. It maintains its position as an institution that leads in all fields of culture dissemination. As if this were not enough, it also leads processes of integration and internationalisation through its contributions of papers in scientific journals, literature, and the safeguarding of the historical and natural heritage of each country, as well as in many other areas. In contrast, the private higher education institutions hardly manage to organise degrees that saturate the already saturated market of the liberal professions and barely make a contribution, apart from some exceptions (no more than ten higher education institutes in the region), to knowledge in the country or the world.

In the last two decades, the public university in the region has promoted the main structural changes in its platforms for coordination in networks and associations, in its processes of regionalisation and integration, in its curricula and in the direction of its research and scientific and technological innovation. It has promoted the best of its activity in the field of knowledge generation, despite the evident backwardness compared to leading global indicators.

The presentation of an alternative is based on a context of urgent need, as there is not much time for governments and the main associated actors and sectors to implement this. The costs of ignorance, falling behind in technology and science, backwardness and social inequity shall soon be translated into risk conditions and a true social and economic catastrophe. Therefore, this is a task that must be assumed with responsibility and urgency by the current generation. The next generation will have other problems.

This raises the possibility of constructing a scenario of a new university reform that points to greater horizontal cooperation between institutions and sectors, organised into networks and community spaces, and working in collaboration, without losing institutional identity.

This situation of university transformation, which seeks to promote an alternative model of university, characterised as an institute for the production and transfer of the social value of knowledge and the relevance of academic tasks, is supported by the organisation of academic structures and processes into networks. It is also maintained by horizontal cooperation that prioritises joint (or interinstitutional projects) projects, greater job mobility of academic staff and students, the homologation of courses and qualifications, joint ownership of resources, and a supportive social educational focus. Educational values are shared and are focused on changing the content of knowledge and disciplines, the creation of new social skills and capabilities that seek to relate national or regional priorities with work in new areas of knowledge, and innovation that seeks to diversify risk. This scenario is sustained by greater participation of the communities and increased diversification in how resources are obtained.

This reflects the idea of an innovative university with social relevance and impact. The aim is to envisage the possibility of an active, dynamic social institution, based on the training of active, productive, innovative employees. A knowledge institution that has a high level of commitment and responsibility to social change, democracy, peace and sustainable development. This is a university where the social quality of the value of the knowledge that it generates and transfers is presented as an organisational principle, as the key to its changes, focused on the nature of its educational processes and on the profile of an institution that responds to the challenges of democratic transition and development with wellbeing.

There are two reasons for analysing the joint responsibility of the university in the above scenario. The first is to demonstrate that we can revert a situation such as that experienced now, where backwardness and the lack of active participation of public universities, as central actors in a process of change, is limited. An alternative can be proposed that seeks in a clear, committed way for knowledge and innovation to be considered as a public good and as strategic instruments in the fight against poverty and inequality, to overcome the structural backwardness of the social debt in education. The second is to promote the democratisation and greater participation of civil society, based on state policies that are of great benefit to the population.


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