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By Fernando Leon Garcia
January 20, 2019

The following commentary is the third and final essay in a series addressing the challenges (and achievements) of higher education in Latin America.

There are well-documented reasons that higher education across Latin America is not known for being forward-thinking or pioneering. Liz Reisberg outlined many of them, making a compelling case that innovation in Latin America higher education may not even be possible—and certainly not on a uniform basis. Yet, like Daniel Levy, I am not without optimism. Change comes slowly, but it does arrive. And I see a few key reasons to believe that the inertia of the status quo may be on the verge of cracking.

Latin America—and its leading universities—are at a turning point, one that could usher in a new era of international collaboration, with wide-ranging implications for students, faculty and regional economies. Here are three trends that spur my optimism.

Universities are increasingly looking toward international accreditation as a means of raising their standards and providing evidence of their quality.

For decades, elite institutions have embraced the rigor associated with international accreditation, making it central to their institutional priorities. There are currently 40-plus foreign institutions that have achieved U.S. institutional accreditation, 10 of which are from Latin America. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) includes four from Mexico and one from Costa Rica. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has one from Mexico, one from Perú, and another from Ecuador. And the Middle States Association (MSA) includes two from Chile.

Indeed, U.S. accreditation has both elevated each institution’s overall academic quality while encouraging investments in faculty with doctoral degrees, academic infrastructure, and support services; facilitating student mobility; helping establish assessment models; and promoting academic collaboration with international partners. That has certainly been the case at my institution, CETYS University, which includes three campuses throughout Mexico’s Baja California region. In 2012, we became the first Latin American institution to be accredited through WASC. About a year ago, we were re-accredited for an additional 10 years.

Such accreditation is not simply an outsourcing of standards and oversight to U.S. accrediting bodies, but a driver of improvements to national efforts as well. Collaboration between the Federation of Private Mexican Institutions of Higher Education (FIMPES) and WASC has helped FIMPES continue to improve the process through which over a hundred private universities in Mexico are accredited.

Of course, it is true that the early adopters of these improvements in accreditation have been among the more prominent, prestigious and well-resourced institutions. However, the trend line is moving in the right direction. International accreditation is becoming the norm among high-performing institutions, encouraging others to strengthen their own standards.

Higher education leaders have recognized their obligations to community and industry partners. Universities are inextricably linked to employers, government and society.

Just as institutions in the United States are increasingly acknowledging a need to create stronger alignment among degree programs, curriculum and the needs of employers, Latin American institutions are responding similarly. The result has been programs that address real-world problems and support applied research efforts in doing so.

Consider the aerospace clusters in central and northwest Mexico, like Querétaro. They draw on more than a dozen core partner institutions, companies and government agencies, including the Mexican Institute of Transportation, the Technological University of Querétaro, Arkansas State University, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the Ministry of Sustainable Development. Like peer clusters elsewhere in the world, their aim is to facilitate synergy among academe, industry and government — and they’re succeeding.

In Baja California, partnerships have involved Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Instituto Tecnológico de Mexicali, and CETYS developing undergraduate majors aligned to key industry clusters, partnering with Honeywell, Gulfstream, and UTC, among others. Additional initiatives include tailored master’s programs conceived through the triple helix of government, industry, and higher education collaboration. Engineering graduate programs developed collaboratively with peers at St. Cloud State University (Minnesota) and UC-San Diego support industry partners in electronics (Skyworks) and medical device (Medtronics) clusters.

And our own Center for Innovation and Design (CEID) was created to support an even broader collaboration involving the quadruple helix – academe, industry, society and government. Importantly, these partnerships reinforce the need for the type of uniform quality standards made possible through institutional and program accreditation processes.

International ties between universities are consistently rooted in factors that transcend student mobility.

To some extent, internationalization is embedded within the DNA of my own institution, which has two of its three campuses along the U.S. border. We began formal internationalization efforts with an emphasis on creating student experiences abroad, and this remains a focus. Yet, true internationalization comes only when it permeates all elements of the university: faculty development experiences, applied research and problem-solving efforts undertaken with global partners, co-taught seminars and courses with partner institutions and double degrees, among others. We are seeing institutions share insights and collaborate with increasing frequency.

In 2013 and again in 2018, nearly a thousand university presidents from Latin America, Spain and Portugal participated in the Rectors Summit supported by Universia—first in Río de Janeiro, Brazil and then in Salamanca, Spain—where commitments and initiatives included improvement in the quality of teaching, mobility agreements and degree recognition.

In April 2019, the Global Attainment and Inclusion Network (GAIN) will meet at the CETYS Ensenada campus. Thanks to support from the American Council on Education, the Lumina Foundation, and Universia, a select number of leaders from across the globe will have the opportunity to share and analyze best practices on student attainment and success.

Continuing the Momentum

Liz Reisberg appropriately reminded us that the progress I’ve outlined is far from universal, and Daniel Levy provided important context for my own optimism. Taken together, I see an exciting—if challenging—future for higher education in Latin America. Our obstacles are well known, but there’s opportunity for change and evolution. The task now is to make the investments and provide a clear strategic direction for our institutions that ensures that my optimism is well-placed.

Fernando Leon Garcia is President of CETYS University.