Internationalisation of Higher Education: The role of University Organizations in Latin America

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IAU Lyon Conference, April 12-13, 2002

Internationalization of Higher Education

Closing plenary (3)

Internationalisation of Higher Education: The role of University Organizations in Latin America

J. J. Sanchez-Sosa and Salomón Lerner Febres
Union of Latin American Universities (UDUAL)

In quite diverse academic analyses and public statements on the goals and future of higher education in Latin America, the tenet that higher education is a social asset receives recurring mention and emphasis. A natural derivation of such position submits that higher education can only be originated and transformed for the benefit of society.

From this standpoint, the international circulation of ideas on higher education has gradually led to a consensus regarding its role in the world. Higher education is increasingly proving an indispensable element of social development, economic growth, and support for the production of goods and services in an increasingly competitive world. It also constitutes a platform for the preservation of cultural identity, social cohesion, battling poverty and promoting a culture of peace (UNESCO, 1996).

The preeminence of higher education as a device to cope with the needs of civil society, including the productive sector and the globalization of economy, has become increasingly clear. This has led to the transformation of the relations between the universities and most institutional components of society, especially in the context of public policy. In Latin America these relations evolved from a sort of paternalism still prevalent in relatively recent decades, to the almost total restriction of subsidies under rules of outcome evaluation and accountability.

Notwithstanding the State’s evaluating nature as a guarantor of higher education institutions’ accountability before the society, public policies should pay attention to the assumption that education should be employed by production systems and market requirements, and should also comply with those two tasks faced by any educational institution: on the one hand, search for solutions to needs and lacks in a society that is to be competitive and, on the other, fulfill its essential commitment: the creation and recreation of knowledge.

The fulfillment of such complex and multiple purposes can only be achieved by plural and free institutions with full academic freedom and autonomy, since creativity is possible only when there is self-determination. It is therefore indispensable that the university’s scientific, technical and humanistic contributions to social development accomplish the real requirements, in addition to their academic duties and the freedom to search for knowledge.

The practice of academic freedom implies the full conscience of each institution’s responsibility as to the development of high-level human resources, as a strategic factor for the growth of nations and for the evolution of several areas of knowledge.

The convergence between academic freedom and social responsibility represents a natural field for day-to-day tasks of every high education institution. University organizations have a significant role: the service rendered to the institutions affiliated to them. The affiliation of a university occurs under the expectation that the fact of pertaining to the association will result in benefits for its academic community. As supporting entities, the main purpose of those institutions assembling universities is the sustained development of actions to promote the strengthening of the essential functions of universities: teaching, research and extension, in addition to an efficient management to improve the productive relationship both between universities and with the environment, under the principles of respect to autonomy and diversity.

The tasks of university organizations are to constitute a consistent base for the development of a bond between the free choice of academic destination and the social function of each university. The task of such organizations is to promote, within either the local or international context, a consideration on the importance of higher education for the present and future times of our nations and also on the expectations of students for their human and professional development.

On the basis of these fundamental purposes, the role of university organizations has six central aspects:

1. The defense of autonomy and academic and research freedom

2. The strengthening of the quality of academic activities

3. The development of information and more efficient communications [Pu1]

4. The acknowledgment of academic excellence

5. The diffusion of academic activities

6. The search for international relationships and financing
1. The defense of autonomy and academic and research freedom

The acknowledgment and consolidation of university autonomy support its academic role and its liberty. The autonomy is based on the definition of the university’s internal organization and government, the distribution of financial resources, the generation of income from several sources, the integration of its management body, the establishment of the specific conditions in which learning process occurs and, finally, the liberty to teach and do research. Every high education institution is able to self-regulate with as much external interference as possible.

This situation is particularly relevant in the case of Latin-American universities, due to the frequent interference of sectors and political groups external to them which violates their specific legislation and also the national laws.

It is clear, on the other hand, that the legitimate practice of autonomy, academic freedom and self-government imply a commitment of a responsibility. This responsibility, which includes the requirement of remembering its mission, should foster the equilibrium of opposed interests between those different sectors that may exercise the power: federal and state government, graduate students, boards of directors, sponsors or donors, students, authorities, employees and society in general.

In such a context, it is the role of university organizations, at least in Latin America, to defend the rights of universities regarding academic and research freedom, and support to organized participation of academic communities in the universities’ government and administration. To be accepted at a university organization, a university should prove there is a legal and real guarantee that its teaching staff and its community enjoy these rights. Both the review of those cases of violation or attack to the university’s autonomy or academic freedom and the report to, or mediation with, the corresponding entities and authorities to apply the necessary measures fall within the scope of interests of university entities.
2. The strengthening of the quality of academic activities

The practice of academic freedom implies the commitment to develop human resources of quality, a multidimensional concept which is assessed through the characteristics of academic personnel, those of students, graduate students, the academic curriculum, the teaching and learning techniques, infrastructure, sources of financing, and links to other institutions. Our institutions’ improvement is based on a continuous reflection regarding their multiple performances. University entities should offer several lines of action strategies to support the institutional members.

On the one hand, it is possible for institutions to support the development of human resources in educational self-assessment tasks applied to create evaluation groups at their own universities. Self-assessment represents an ideal means of reflection about their own activities, and these activities should lead any other type of educational assessment, by offering answers to the interests and needs of each institution.

Other scope of action of organizations is the design and application of programs providing the universities with the fundamentals to deal with the external evaluation and accreditation processes, widely applied in these days. Anyway, training activities related to self-assessment and external evaluation need to adjust themselves to academic strengthening and improvement of the education offered.

In developing the quality of institutions, self-assessment and external evaluation efforts contribute mainly to the mutual acknowledgment of degrees and titles, and secondarily, to the academic and professional development.

The quality of academic activities in universities is also supported by contests, seminars and congresses to stimulate the development of research and critical and creative activities by the academic community. In order to organize this kind of programs, university organizations should be able to record relevant social information, so as to lead the educational institutions on the needs to be dealt with by means of their activities. They also foster student mobility/labor mobility through management programs jointly with international entities which support exchange projects.

It is also the university organizations’ duty to provide information regarding the availability of scholarship or exchange programs in different institutions, disciplines and areas of knowledge. The establishment of cooperation agreements between university organizations and universities enables joint research works answering to mutual academic interests, in order to create academic support and information exchange networks.

University organizations should create those conditions necessary to act as consultation, intercommunication, training and updating entities regarding processes such as those related to distance education at a distance. For this purpose, programs are developed on this methodology and for the improvement of teaching personnel’s educational practice on this method.

3. The development of information and more efficient communications/the development of new information technologies and communications

In order for university autonomy, teaching freedom and research freedom to develop and sustain, some conditions exceeding the limits of traditional teaching and those of traditional means to learn, be informed and communicate.

Multimedia programs, electronic mail, teleconference and Internet expand/extend go beyond geographic and cultural borders. Information sources have become almost inexhaustible, and universities should prepare their students for the selection, analysis and assessments of knowledge acquired thereby and incorporate this technology in tasks such as:

- The design and production of teaching material

- The creation of virtual classrooms for the interaction between students and academic personnel from different geographical areas

- The communication between researchers in distant places

- The access to databases and information sources

Regarding these activities, university organizations have a broad field of activities to facilitate the incorporation of advanced technology as an instrument supporting the academic activities inherent to each university. In this respect:

- Organizations should manage and promote the use of teleconferences as a medium for debate and academic exchange between professors, researchers and students.

- Web pages of university organizations should include the added value necessary for them to become in true "portals/entrance (halls)/vestibules" for higher education offering: academic information classified on a thematic basis; a platform for interactive debate of subjects of university interest; a means for the diffusion of the activities developed by universities; a virtual library operating as a point of sales point and a space for the diffusion of university publications.

- It is necessary to consolidate the information systems of university organizations to promote a more efficient work and strengthen their external communication. For this purpose: internal networks foster work team, the availability of consolidated information and a better use of human resources; as well, in entering "on line", the catalogues of libraries and documentation centers of organizations promote academic and research work.

Regarding information issues, university organizations should probably adopt two goals. First, to be an efficient, reliable and updated support for the universities’ needs of data, supporting their planning, management, and assessment activities, as well as carry out comparative surveys on higher education.

The second goal relates to their role as a consulting body, also reliable and updated, useful to international and other institutions requiring updated information about the state of the art of world higher education.

This kind of tools represent, for international university organizations, a strategic factor to help develop academic networks allowing the shared use of specialized equipment, the academic cooperation of the best human resources, and programs for the mobility of professors, researchers and students.

This strategy offers an answer to the characteristics of Latin America, due to the lack of human, infrastructure and bibliographic resources in this region, among others. This way, university organizations, using their databases, their diffusion media, and several academic meetings, among other factors, would drive the development of international cooperation networks to help improve university activities and offer a better answer to the expectations of society.

In the case of the Union of Latin-American Universities (UDUAL), Information System on Latin-American and Caribbean Higher Education (SIESALC). This system will allow to perform general or specific information searches regarding multiple academic, administrative and organization characteristics of Latin-American higher education institutions, and also to have modules to organize this information as general reports.

4. The acknowledgment of academic excellence

The task of university organizations recognize and diffuse the value and service spirit of those who address their life efforts to improve universities and who contributed to the best expression of the link between academic freedom and social responsibility, organizing work teams, promoting scientific and humanistic activities, cultural identity, academic integration and improvement, as ideals that are to be reproduced. Granting awards and prizes is a way to make this objective real.

5. The dissemination of academic activities

The editorial activities of university organizations develop the fulfillment of research in academic communities. The publications, generated in books, journals, gazettes, and bulletins become both a diffusion mechanism that accounts for the work produced by the academic personnel at the institutions and a medium to express their academic freedom.

6. The search for international relationships and financing

In Latin America, public expenditure per student is lower as compared to other regions in the world. In 1995, according to data from UNESCO (1998), the ordinary public expenditure in this region was of US$937. Meanwhile, the figure corresponding to Africa was US$1,241; in Asia and Oceania, US$5,488; in North America, US$5,996, and in Europe, US$6,585. It is therefore evident that education is under-financed in Latin America.

The search for contestable funds, the support offered by international financing agencies and the sales of patents, consulting and other services, as well as of applied research, and the obtainment of donations are some of the processes through which the university can solve some of its financing problems.

The link with strategic partners for a better development of university activities and of those of university organizations should not wait, since it is more and more evident that educational institutions may not easily exist or accomplish their functions on an isolated basis. University organizations may promote collaboration agreements and financial resources to support specific activities in their affiliated universities.

Three provisional conclusions:

1. University organizations may and should be factors that stimulate the academic development of affiliated universities, within an environment of freedom and institutional and national diversity. They will contribute therefore to exercise the social role of university institutions for the generation of knowledge, for the development of specialized human resources and for the diffusion of culture.

2. University organizations may, within their daily tasks and supported by efficient information systems, promote the creation of institutional cooperation networks to stimulate research, teaching and international mobility within the current global world.

3. With the aggregate knowledge of their members, international university associations may help to represent university interests, on an articulated basis, before international entities affecting their activities. This activity should make university organizations capable to communicate to, and on behalf of, their affiliated institutions.

There is still plenty to be done. We are certain that we can and should assume the risk to work for the joint and articulated achievement of these and other purposes.


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