By Rodrigo Arocena*
As the latest commodity boom winds down, universities in Latin America can play a leading role in helping the region rebound from the resulting economic slowdown and build itself a more prosperous and equitable future. The consequences of the boom for economic, political, and social conditions in the region are hotly (and rightly) contested. But one inescapable conclusion is that inadequate attention was paid to raising societies’ knowledge and qualifications in the production of goods and services. This matters greatly, because knowledge gaps and skill deficits lie at the heart of what underdevelopment means today. If the focus in the decades following World War II was on addressing disparities in industrialization, one of the challenges now is over-specialization in productive activities with low added-value of knowledge and qualifications. When such specialization persists, social and environmental problems are not manageable in the long term. Differences concerning knowledge and higher education are also one of the main factors behind inequality, in both North and South. In Latin America, traditionally considered the most unequal region in the world, inequality in recent years has been reduced in a handful of countries and so has poverty in almost all of them. But such social progress may be jeopardized soon not only because of economic and political changes but also because of quite weak progress made expanding knowledge capabilities and applying them to collective problems.
Universities are at the heart of the solution. In the knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies that emerged in the North during the last decades of the 20th century, universities obviously made a difference. They were fundamental actors in the accelerated expansion of advanced education that is closely connected with that type of economy. They generated new scientific and technological knowledge and often channeled its use into productive activities. Even then, in the advanced economies of the North private sector firms perform a quite larger proportion of total research and development than universities. Moreover, Northern universities are mainly oriented by market demand, meaning that actors who are already knowledge-strong obtain most of the benefits of what universities do, fostering what could be called knowledge-based inequality. This is different from Latin America in several ways:
- Public universities in Latin America are the main generators of new knowledge, which is why they should get priority when thinking about the future of the region’s development.
- They are frequently well plugged into National Innovation Systems, the web of actors and institutions responsible for upgrading productivity through the generation and effective use of new knowledge.
- They represent a continuation, although at a weakened level, of the tradition of the socially committed university forged by the Latin American University Reform Movement.
In any country of the world, knowledge democratization deserves high priority in every progressive agenda – and Latin American universities are, at least potentially, fundamental actors in this task. Democratizing access and success in higher education, and thus trying to overcome an ancient social divide that stymies development, is key. The task also means fostering research in all disciplines and applying it to collective problems, as has occurred with research and innovation oriented to social inclusion. The Latin American ideal highlights merging the modern university’s two long-established missions – teaching and research – with a third one, called “extension,” which entails cooperation with external actors in knowledge generation, cultural creation, and problem-solving, with priority given to the situation of deprived sectors. As motors for knowledge expansion, and thus for social inclusion, Latin American universities make an invaluable contribution to development and the deepening of democracy.
April 28, 2016
* Rodrigo Arocena served as Rector of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, from 2006 to 2014.