Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi

Latin America (along with Africa) is the continent with the fewest top quality research-intensive universities. No Latin American university is found in the top 100, and relatively few Latin American scholars and scientists are among the most highly cited academics. Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 1.6 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking and less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking. This is a serious deficiency if the continent wants to produce quality research and innovation—and share in the science-driven progress of the 21st century, especially in the present times of pandemic.

            One of the main reasons is the underperformance of the great public universities that emerged from the “Cordoba higher education revolution” of 1918. It is worth examining why this is the case as a prerequisite to improvement.

The Ideals and Realities of the “Cordoba” Universities

The Cordoba Revolution, started in Argentina in 1918 by students eager to democratize and modernize the university, led to the development of large public comprehensive universities throughout the continent and cemented the model of public higher education up to the present, making change very difficult. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Cordoba principles can be summarized in the following way. Universities have an important role to play, educating students who can participate in nation-building and providing research and service to contribute to national development efforts. With the ideal of providing equal access, universities do not charge tuition and generally admit students based on transparent and common criteria—either secondary school completion or competitive university entrance examinations. As a protection from authoritarian regimes, universities should be autonomous—free of direct government control, with academic freedom guaranteed, but at the same time funded by the state. Universities should be internally governed democratically—including faculty, students, and sometimes administrative personnel involved in decision making, and electing key academic leaders.

Throughout Latin America, public universities influenced by the Cordoba model came to dominate academe and remain the key institutions today, largely unchanged in the past century. Even with massification, the growth of the private sector (in many Latin American countries, more than half the enrolments are in private higher education), and considerable institutional diversification, the “Cordoba universities” remain the gold standard. Several have become mega-universities, and many are the most prominent producers of locally relevant research in the country. For example, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the largest in the region, has 350,000 students (some in affiliated secondary schools). The University of Buenos Aires (UBA) enrolls 309,000 students.

The situation has been further exacerbated by low levels of public funding for higher education in most Latin American countries, lack of long-term continuity in national higher education policies due to political instability, and sometimes negative views towards the scientific mission of universities, as illustrated by the adversary policies of the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil.

The Governance Challenges of the Cordoba Universities

The case of the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s top university, illustrates well the governance limitations of many public universities in Latin America, unable to evolve rapidly with the flexibility characterizing flagship institutions elsewhere. Even though it has the highest number of top-rated graduate programs in the country, annually produces more PhD graduates than any U.S. university, produces pertinent research for the country, and is the highest-financed public university in Latin America, its ability to manage its resources is severely constrained by rigid civil service regulations. It has few linkages with the international research community—only 3 percent of its graduate students are from outside Brazil, and the majority of professors are USP graduates themselves.

The key missing element is the absence of a vision of excellence to challenge the status quo and transform the university, reinforced by a system of democratic election of university leaders, which promotes clientelism and frequent turnover of leaders, a large internal university council that makes the decision-making process unwieldy, and an egalitarian academic culture that frowns upon recognizing and rewarding outstanding researchers and teachers. In Brazil as in many countries in the LAC region, the lack of strategic ambition for the development of higher education can often be observed as much at the national government level as among the university leadership.

 What Could Be Done

The transformation of Latin America’s public universities would, without doubt, require a second “Cordoba revolution,” driven by a bold vision from the academic community, and substantial support and resources from government. This would involve the following changes:

  • Substantial increases in public funding. Today, research funding is between 0.3 and 1% of annual GDP, way below the levels of investment in Nordic countries and East Asian nations.
  • A continuous focus on national service and the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the strengths of the traditional “Cordoba universities” has been their commitment to national and social development. It is essential to retain this tradition and vision.
  • A modern governance setup that allows for the professional selection of university leaders, internationally—a practice that, ironically, is acceptable when it comes to choosing the trainer of the national soccer team but is viewed as sacrilegious for universities. Also, universities are complex institutions that require a balance of professional and academic management and leadership.
  • Autonomy and academic freedom, coupled with accountability to the government—the main funding source—and to society.
  • Manageable size. Most world-class universities have enrollments of 40,000 students or fewer—and have a fairly comprehensive array of academic programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • Interdisciplinarity. Flagship universities have structures and incentives that encourage and enable teaching and research across disciplines. This is notably lacking in many Latin American universities.
  • Internationalization. Latin American universities generally lag behind their global peers in international connections, collaborative scholarship and research, and mobility. All aspects of internationalization are important, including increased attention to the use of English for international mobility and collaborative research , as long as it remains the main medium of global science and scholarship.

Our argument is not an “academic” exercise but an invitation to governments and institutional leaders to think about the development role of their universities in the 21st century.  Latin America deserves to have first-rate universities that can engage with global science through leading-edge fundamental and applied research, train ethically minded citizens and professionals, and contribute to the sustainable development of LAC societies. One thing is clear—the model of the traditional “Cordoba universities,” however innovative and successful a century ago, is no longer adequate and should be revisited. Another revolution is needed—this time not a common template as Cordoba proposed— but rather in the form of innovative ideas and courageous initiatives suited to each country’s national needs and aspirations.


This blog originally appeared as an article in University World News and International Higher Education. Philip G. Altbach is Research Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Diego Portales University, Chile, and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US.

The New Equity Study

A 2018 study sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, All Around The World, reviewed the policy commitments of national governments to promote equal opportunities in access and success in higher education.  The study found that, with the exception of a few fragile states recovering from a natural catastrophe or a major political crisis, equity is a priority theme in the higher education discourse of most governments. 

Leading up to this year’s World Access to Higher Education Day (26 November 2019), we undertook a follow-up study to explore which equity promotion policies seem most successful, and to assess under what circumstances some policies work better than others.  The new study focused on a small sample of countries from all corners of the planet: Australia, Austria, Colombia, South Africa and Vietnam.

The country case studies revealed the following strengths:

  • Australia is one of the most advanced countries in terms of comprehensive equity policies;
  • Austria is a leader when it comes to gender policies and support for refugees;
  • Colombia has been a pioneer in student loans and retention policies;
  • South Africa is making strides in addressing long-lasting inequalities from years of apartheid; and
  • Vietnam attends many equity target groups but needs to invest more public resources to implement its comprehensive equity plan.

Key Findings at the National Level

We found that there is a dearth of rigorous impact studies evaluating equity policies in a rigorous manner.  We also concluded that there is insufficient relevant data to measure disparities and monitor the effects and consequences of equity policies. 

The country studies do confirm one of the major findings of the 2018 Lumina study: to achieve strong equity results there needs to be a high degree of alignment among leadership goals, policy goals, policy instruments, and allocated resources. It is particularly crucial to have enough resources to implement the national equity agenda effectively. 

The country experiences also showed us that there is essential to have continuity in equity policies.  Through the case studies we saw how politics often get in the way of sound policies.  To improve access and success for under-represented groups in the long run, it is important to stay the course and carry on with both financial and non-monetary equity policies in a consistent way, independently of who is in government. 

Additionally, we noted that Austria is the only country surveyed with equity promotion policies influenced and strengthened by supranational considerations. The Bologna process and the social dimension agenda promoted by the European Commission have both strengthened Austria’s equity agenda in higher education.

Finally, the case studies confirm the interaction of four structural elements that strongly influence the scope and magnitude of disparities in higher education:

  • The secondary education system and the extent of streaming between general education and vocational training within high schools,
  • The level of selectivity in the admission policies of universities,
  • The degree of institutional differentiation of higher education systems, and
  • The availability of financial aid for students from disadvantaged groups. 

Key Findings at the Institutional Level

In the five case studies, we also reviewed institutional approaches and experiences to promoting access and success for under-served students.  A survey of several universities in each country has revealed a number of good practices worth reporting. 

  • Institutions should have a clear strategy that can either take the form of a stand-alone document or be embedded in the institutional strategic plan.  The University of Wollongong in Australia and Uniminuto in Colombia are good examples of this. Both have put a strong emphasis on equity as part of their core mission. 
  • Having a department responsible for all equity-related activities under the direct authority of an institutional leader is also an important factor of success. 
  • In low- and middle-income countries, innovative partnerships between higher education institutions, local authorities, and local businesses can generate additional resources to finance scholarships for needy student. 
  • Higher education institutions—and even governments—can share and model successful policies and programs initiated by individual universities.  This happened, for example, with the successful mentorship program set up by the Universidad del Valle in Colombia.
  • In addition to ensuring greater access, elite public or private universities that want to be more inclusive should strive to provide a welcoming environment for first-generation students, who often feel uncomfortable within an elitist institutional culture.

Next Steps

Moving forward, it will be important to put emphasis on four aspects:

  • impact studies to measure which interventions and combinations of interventions are most effective; 
  • strong information systems to identify all equity groups and measure their progress in terms of access and graduation;
  • identification and evaluation of effective policies to improve gender balance in STEM institutions and programs, in the top academic positions, and in university leadership functions.
  • definition of the needs of students with disability, provision of sufficient resources, and empowerment of higher education institutions to place this dimension much higher on their equity agenda.

Post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  Oxford Dictionary

“Evidence-based” and “Science-based”: two expressions explicitly prohibited in official budget documents of the Federal government by President Trump in 2018

Scholars and experts are aware of the limits of their knowledge, as doubt is part of scientific reasoning. As the cognitive bias known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, for scientists, “the more you know, the more likely you are to see how little you know”. The opposite is of course also true. The less you know, the less able you are to recognize how little you know, so the less likely you are to recognize your errors and shortcomings. Or, as Bertrand Russell said: “the whole problem of the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Unfortunately, the world seems to be increasingly populated by “fools and fanatics”. In a time of blogging, tweeting and instant messages, everybody’s views are assumed to be equally valid and worth considering. Thus, we experience constant “information war”, with the proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and, last but not least, alternative facts. As we know, the latter expression was originally coined by President Trump’s spokesperson after the release of the photos comparing the turnout at his Inauguration in January 2017 with Obama’s in January 2009.

Conspiracy theories have always existed. Conspiracy thinking arises when people faced with complex issues choose to believe a simple—but false—explanation of whom to blame. Often, conspiracy theories are more amusing than the honest, but often complicated truth. But today’s social media, with their algorithms based on artificial intelligence, create “echo chambers” that play an important role in spreading false rumors. In addition, professional fake news writers and disseminators are flourishing and can often be manipulated by foreign interests, as Russian meddling in the US presidential election has shown. Thus, the realization that two-thirds of adults living in the United States are on Facebook and 45% get their main news from it, is a matter of deep concern.

These trends affect democracies in an adverse manner. Fewer people are interested in participating in democratic elections, either by voting or running for office. Faced with a maelstrom of fake news and contradictory information, voters are unsure of what to believe and make increasingly irrational decisions, following the exhortations of demagogues who appeal to their raw emotions rather than their reason. Misinformation undermines democracy and leads to dramatic policy shifts that may adversely affect the very people who have supported the policy changes. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the negative vote in the peace referendum in Colombia and the election of President Trump are the most recent examples in that respect. One of the paradoxes of these situations, in the case of the United States, is that the measures taken by the Republican administration to curtail health care access and benefits are likely to affect, to a large extent, the voter base of the Grand Old Party.

Notwithstanding this post-truth context, World Class Universities (WCUs) still need to deal with pressing global challenges, such as climate change, migration, global epidemics, a turbulent world economy, financial instability, increased inequality, global trafficking and terrorism, to name only a few. They must also continue to assume their role model responsibility in the way they operate as institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, the international rankings that identify which universities are in the top do not measure fundamental dimensions of the role of WCUs, such as the importance of instilling ethical principles, the ability to foster engaged learning experiences (critical thinking, connecting disciplines and applying knowledge to the real world), the need to be socially inclusive institutions, the extent to which research remains unbiased and intellectually independent from the political and business world that contributes to its funding, etc.

In a globalized, complex context, WCUs are facing growing risks. They are increasingly driven by the market and the never-ending search for additional funds, rather than by their own sense of higher purpose. Seen for a long time as a temple of knowledge where dedicated researchers are serving science, they have lost part of their standing. This has generated a decline in people’s trust in scholarly expertise.

Even more worrisome is the wariness that government authorities have shown towards universities. This has had two serious consequences. First, in several countries, top universities have experienced significantly reduced public funding. In the United States, for instance, under the dual influence of the financial crisis and the perception that universities are bastions of liberal thinkers, the Republican legislature in states as diverse as Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Virginia has cut down the annual budgetary allocation to the state’s flagship university to no more than 10% of its annual revenue. Second, from Hungary to Turkey to China and Russia, authoritarian rulers are imposing growing restrictions on academic freedom to their public universities.

World-Class Universities are increasingly under threat in the post-truth world. With global visibility comes global responsibility. WCUs all over the world should work together as a network for the public good. They must succeed in meeting international standards while being deeply committed to their local environment. As they engage in socially useful learning and relevant knowledge creation, they should also preserve a space where free debate and dissent are welcome. The “Ivory Tower” could thus morph into a “Beacon of Hope” and contribute to diminishing the inequalities and the frustration they generate at the local and national level, while contributing to a fairer and more sustainable planet.

In that perspective, we propose a code of conduct for WCUs in the form of five “Shanghai Principles”, to commemorate the place where this proposal was made for the first time. The Shanghai principles are defined as follows:

  • Inclusiveness. Academic excellence should become more inclusive rather than continuing to be exclusive as a result of unnecessary selection mechanisms. Following the example of Arizona State University and some of the top universities throughout the world that have a needs-blind admission policy, WCUs must find ways of welcoming an increasingly diverse student population by removing the financial and non-monetary barriers that prevent qualified applicants from vulnerable groups from accessing and succeeding in WCUs. Many studies have shown that diversity among students and staff improves the teaching and learning experience and fosters tolerance and open-mindedness. 
  • Ethics. WCUs should place a strong emphasis on ethical values and behaviors to promote honesty, tolerance and solidarity. For this purpose, it is not sufficient to design a compulsory course on ethics that all students are expected to take. WCUs should do much more to instill ethical principles in students and faculty and to ensure that socially responsible values are built into the curriculum. Positive values should permeate all academic programs and become part of the DNA of the institutional culture of WCUs.
  • Objectivity. An essential responsibility of WCUs is to promote critical thinking. Therefore, teaching, learning and research must be conducted in a scientific way, with great emphasis on objective methods of reasoning and inquiry. WCUs must champion honest communication about what can be legitimately claimed as truthful. Inside the university, it is important to reinstate the academic tradition of free and fair debate that has been undermined by relativism and political correctness. WCUs are well placed to offer a safe space for assessing different views but also to engage outside of the university in public debates on complex issues. To deal with the latter, multi-disciplinary perspectives are often needed and universities are one of the few places that have the means to provide the expertise, to nourish reflection, and to influence policies on the basis of facts and scientific evidence. As van der Zwaan put it, “In the future, the university may well derive its most important form of legitimacy from its visibility and leadership in society. Despite the fact that public discourse is showing less and less interest in complexity, tackling complex problems is one of the university’s key strengths”.
  • Relevance. Research undertaken by WCUs must address global challenges, including but not limited to food, health, energy, climate change, the environment and security. WCUs are very good at conducting excellent “blue sky” research but they should focus more on promoting research that solves real problems and addresses global challenges. When looking at the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2015, it is clear that WCUs can have a positive impact on almost every one of them.
  • Global Collaboration. The race to secure a higher position in the international rankings has pushed WCUs to compete with each other in a compulsive manner. Notwithstanding the competition exacerbated by the rankings, solidarity is a core value of university life. It is the essence of collegiality. Over the centuries, it has fostered the exchange of ideas, mobility of researchers and joint undertakings. The competition inherent in the rankings phenomenon should not come at the expense of collaboration among responsible universities. WCUs can equally promote excellence through cooperation and solidarity. WCUs should rather act as a community of institutions and scholars cooperating for the global good. In that way, they would be following the positive example of the Talloires Network, an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of universities.

* This blog was written together with Pierre de Maret, emeritus president of the Free University of Brussels.  It is based on a chapter by the authors in the following upcoming book Wu, Y., Wang, Q., and Liu, N.C. (eds.) (forthcoming). World-Class Universities: Towards a Global Common Good and Seeking National and Institutional Contributions. Rotterdam: Brill Publishers.  A shorter version was posted on Inside Higher Education‘s world view.


“…All regions and countries can benefit from progress toward a knowledge-based economy, which does not depend heavily on material resources, places less of a burden on ecosystems and is more sustainable than other economic models. By shifting to a knowledge-based economy, societies can move from the age of scarcity to the age of abundance. Knowledge does not deplete with use but rather increases as it is shared among people. Through technological innovation, we can help usher in a more sustainable future…”

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General (24 April 2014)

The Brazilian aviation company, Embraer, is the world leader in the production of regional jets. The success of the country’s emblematic firm can be traced back to the creation of ITA, the National Aeronautic Engineering School, in the early 1950s. Established in close partnership with MIT, and widely considered today as Brazil’s top engineering school, ITA has trained the scientists, engineers and technicians who helped build Embraer into a leading global company.

Typhidot is a revolutionary method to diagnose typhoid fever. Invented by scientists at the Malaysian University of Science in Penang (USM), Typhidot is credited with saving thousands of lives. Compared with traditional methods for detecting the disease, Typhidot is faster, more reliable, cheaper, and it does not require cold storage. USM’s Center for Medical Innovations and Technology Development, from which Typhidot originates, is dedicated to finding innovative ways of diagnosing infectious diseases in an effective, quick and affordable manner.

Until the beginning of this decade, most practicing teachers in Palestinian primary schools were poorly prepared and did not have a university degree. After new regulations required all teachers to have both a university degree and a relevant professional teaching qualification, three West Bank universities worked together, with support from a renowned British teacher training institution, to radically overhaul their pre-service teacher training program, introducing a competency-based approach and a school experience element. A quasi-experimental study carried out after three years of implementation found very high value added for the new pre-service teaching program.

These are but three examples to illustrate the unique and vital contribution that tertiary education makes to economic and social development. But notwithstanding this crucial developmental role, for several decades traditional human capital theory challenged the need for public support of tertiary education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers. Influenced by this argument, many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies focused their support on basic education rather than investing as well in the expansion and improvement of tertiary education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the importance of going beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the full value of tertiary education as a fundamental pillar of sustainable development. By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis failed to capture the broader social benefits accruing to society, which are important to recognize and measure. These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path-breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in tertiary education and research to equip developing countries with the knowledge and the qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth. Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from UNESCO and the World Bank, the report had an important impact at three levels. First, it helped reorient donor policies to give greater attention to tertiary education in partner countries. Second, it unleashed several reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves. Third, it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Fifteen years later, the world of tertiary education has changed significantly. Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector. Many of them are facing an exponentially rising demand as more young people graduate from high school as a result of successes in implementing the Education for All agenda. Against this background, the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations in September 2015 has given renewed consideration to the importance of education for development and the urgency of putting in place viable financing strategies to expand and transform tertiary education. Indeed, it is doubtful that any low-income country can achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without a strong tertiary education system.

In addition to the essential contribution that tertiary education can make to the goals of sustainable economic growth (SDG 8) and poverty reduction (SDG 1), advances on all the other 15 dimensions, from developing a vibrant agricultural sector and building up a resilient infrastructure to mitigating the devastating effects of climate change and preserving the environment, cannot happen without the participation of scientists and well-trained professionals and the application of leading edge research for finding appropriate solutions to the big challenges faced by mankind. With respect to the goal of diminished inequality (SDG 10), tertiary education plays a critical role in promoting social mobility through equal educational opportunities for all groups, especially the most vulnerable groups in society (low-income groups, minorities, people with special needs, etc.). Achieving the SDGs also requires strong institutions for policy design and implementation, and well-prepared citizens who care about social and economic inclusion and environmental sustainability.

The contribution of tertiary education is crucial, in particular, for achieving real progress in basic and secondary education. A recent study found that more than a quarter of all primary school teachers in 31 countries had not achieved the minimum education standards themselves. Tertiary education supports the rest of the education system through the training of effective teachers and school principals, the involvement of highly qualified specialists in curriculum development and educational research, and the design of appropriate tests to assess students learning outcomes. The symbiotic linkage between tertiary education and the lower levels of schooling has the potential of stimulating a virtuous circle of capacity building in as far as the quality of tertiary education affects the quality of primary and secondary school education and is, in turn, directly influenced by the quality of secondary school graduates.

A similar argument applies to the fundamental role of medical education and research for meeting the health sustainable development goal (SDG 3). Universities train the medical doctors, nurses, technicians, epidemiologists, public health specialists, and hospital managers who form the most important pillar of any health system. Universities and associated health institutes conduct the fundamental research and a significant share of the applied research that condition any significant progress in the fight against diseases and health hazards.

Developing countries must build up their capacity to deal with serious health issues not only because of domestic policy needs, but also in order to contribute effectively to the resolution of global health crises through collaborative research. Indeed, research production has moved from being discipline-driven to problem-focused, with diverse teams of scientists from several disciplinary areas collaborating on the resolution of complex problems, which often correspond to shared challenges that affect mankind as a whole, regardless of political boundaries. This evolution is best illustrated by the global health issues that have come up in recent years, from SARS to MERS to the latest Ebola epidemics in West Africa. In the case of SARS, for example, identifying the corona virus required data sharing and collaborative efforts on an unprecedented scale. This experience has radically changed how the international scientific community responds to emerging global health threats.

This blog was initially published by Inside Higher Education.