Latino Universities Go Private

The explosion in numbers of Latin American students entering higher education has been achieved by governments financing private fee-paying universities that undertake little or no postgraduate scientific research.

Data shows that in both Brazil and Argentina, the most populous of the region’s countries, the growth of these universities has far outstripped federally-funded centres of learning where students are charged no fees. Latin America is following South East Asia into the aggressive privatisation of higher learning.

While many of the older private universities are controlled by foundations or charities, a brash new generation of for-profit education companies is growing up, with little or no interest in conducting research. These “degree factories” are designed to give school leavers basic preparation for the job market – and to generate profits for owners, which in some cases include US private equity investors. Post graduate degrees on offer tend to focus on professional skills such as business or administration.

In Brazil, three out of four of all today’s graduates attended private universities. The number of undergraduates enrolled in higher learning has leapt from 2 million in 2,000, to 9.5 million in 2013. Likewise in Argentina, student numbers grew substantially.

However, data collected by Elisabeth Balbachevsky, a researcher at the Public Policy Research Nucleus at the University of São Paulo (USP) shows that almost all the increase has come from rising numbers of students at commercial institutions.

Private Universities focus on graduate job market (Foto Wikimedia)

Private Universities focus on graduate job market (Foto Wikimedia)

She presented the information at a recent seminar in Buenos Aires organised by the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). You can click here to read about FAPESP Week Buenos Aires.

In Brazil, 76 percent of  the growth in  university places – around 5 million a year – are private sector. In Argentina, the number of private sector places grew 75 percent over the same period.

By contrast, the growth in undergraduate places at Brazil’s publicly-funded universities grew from 1 million to 1.9 million, while the comparable growth figure in Argentina was 4.8%.

This massive pivot toward private sector education has negative effects for the region’s scientific research, almost all of which is carried out by publicly-funded universities. While undergraduates themselves do not undertake research, their presence – as elsewhere in the world – indirectly justifies and finances the infrastructure, the facilities, the faculty members and other assets that make research possible.

Therefore, the basic infrastructure for research is not growing as fast as the university population and government budgets for higher education are effectively being diverted away from the research sector.

What’s noteworthy in Brazil is that both public and private higher education sectors continue to expand – only the publicly-funded sector rather more slowly.

For instance, the number of postgraduate students enrolled at public universities rose from 25,000 in 2000 to 150,000 in 2012. The number of PhD students, meanwhile, trebled in the same period.

Whereas most academics working at Brazil’s publicly-funded universities have full-time contracts, job stability and unchallenging teaching timetables that allow them to undertake research, those in the for-profit sector find themselves on a far tougher academic treadmill with little time to research or publish.

While Brazil’s government has lauded the dramatic growth in undergraduate numbers and the positive effect for local economies and for employment, ministers have been less forthright about the financing of these new institutions and the effect on the network of public institutions – once the backbone of learning in Brazil. These are experiencing recessionary times and research salaries have stagnated.

In Brazil’s case, the explosion in numbers at commercial universities has been achieved largely through government grants and by means of student grant packages or incentives. You can read an article about the government’s Prouni and  FIES financing packages by clicking here.

The Programa Universidade para Todos (PROUNI) university inclusion programme in 2104 handed grants to over 1.2 million recipients – the majority to pay for undergraduate study by students from lower-income families at commercial universities. In some cases these places were offered in exchange for exemption of taxes owed by commercial universities. Press reports said the Prouni budget was BR$7.5 billion and that 1.66 million out of  5.34 million  students at commercial universities currently receive  some kind of  state-funded support.

Together with Fundo de Financiamento Estudantil (Fies) programme, Prouni is now funding over 30% of the private university system. Pronatec, Fies and Prouni use government finance to place poorer students in for-profit commercial  institutions – in some cases run by the very same business conglomerates that  outsource technical training  for the government.

So, despite its pro-state rhetoric, Brazil’s left-leaning government is effectively outsourcing the business of undergraduate education to industrial corporations, some of them international in scale and reach, which have become some of the world’s most profitable educational businesses. Some are under the control of US based private equity funds. You can read a 2013 article about this by clicking here.

A powerful lobby representing the interests of private learning companies is well entrenched in Brasilia’s congress – and enjoys the strong backing of the coalition government.

During their initial growth spurt, Brazil’s private universities focused on undergraduate courses that required little investment in infrastructure. But now, USP researcher Elisabeth Balbachevsky told the Buenos Aires conference, they are advancing into technical and science fields such as engineering and medicine.

Brazil is close to graduating more engineers from the private sector than from public universities, according to Renato Pedrosa, a professor with the department of science and technology policy at the University of Campinas (Unicamp).

A visible trend is the growing concentration of postgraduate research in São Paulo’s state universities – which are now responsible for half of all doctorates and 88 percent of the country’s postgraduate qualifications (MA/MSc and PhD).

The conclusion is that the financing of Brazil’s postgraduate research community depends more heavily than ever at regional level upon research foundations and at federal level upon funding agencies within the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation such as CNPq and CAPES.

And as federal budgets are squeezed, the capacity of  regional institutions like FAPESP in São Paulo to partner with  international organisations, becomes ever more critical to Brazil’s research effort.

To read a full report (in Portuguese) about this topic by Brazilian reporter Elton Alisson, click here.

To read about other topics at the Buenos Aires conference, click here:

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