South America Gains Diversity through Privatization

Article excerpt

SHAPED BY RELIGIOUS, POLITICAL, FINANCIAL, and socioeconomic influences and driven today by a growing demand that public institutions are not meeting, private colleges and universities play an increasingly significant role in higher education in South America.

Public universities still are the first choice for many students and their families in the region for reasons ranging from their cost-they are free in most cases-to traditional beliefs that they provide the best educations and generally are held in higher respect.

But with some crumbling of those perceptions, and with the public sector seemingly unable or unwilling in some countries to expand to meet a growing need, the private sector has stepped in, competing for and often winning students more interested in solid preparation for careers in business and the professions than in national traditions.

"There is an increased demand for more capacity in higher education and, in general, private institutions have been more ready to accommodate that demand than public institutions," says Andres Bernasconi, vice rector for research and graduate programs at Universidad Andres Bello in Santiago, Chile.

While most private institutions are accepted as legitimate, questions have been raised about others that appear to some observers to be of dubious academic quality with a principal interest in making profits.

But all have found a place in the region where, despite their national differences, countries share a common interest in satisfying a need to provide more higher education opportunities within their borders.

Forty-five percent of all students enrolled in higher education in South America are in private universities, according to Daniel C. Levy, distinguished professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, and director of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE). It's "not uncommon" in some countries for most students to be enrolled in private universities, he says.

In Brazil, where 90 percent of higher education institutions are private, 74 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in them, according to the last higher education census in 2006.

But there are wide disparities across the region. In Argentina, according to PROPHE, enrollments in the private sector have surged 47 percent in the last ten years and are approaching a quarter of a million. Still, although more than half of all institutions in the university market are private, only 16 percent of students attend them, reports Marcelo Rabossi, a doctoral fellow at Universidad Torcuato di Telia, a private institution in Buenos Aires.

Growth Factors: Religion, Elitism, Career Choices

Levy sees three basic "waves" underlying the growth of private higher education in South America. The first is religion.

In most of South America, the earliest private universities were Catholic, some with roots extending back several centuries. In some countries, like Colombia, the need for more private institutions today stems from a tradition of religious congregations as the first providers of education during Colonial times, says Consuelo Uribe Mallarino, academic dean of the faculty of social sciences at Javeriana University, a Jesuit institution in Bogota that was founded in 1630.

Levy says that as mainstream public universities became more secular, students and families concerned about religion and morals sought institutions where they could be more comfortable. The social and ideological orientation of students and their fami lies still influences the choice of private universities (often Catholic) that many students make.

"Children from conservative families who have gone to upper-stage schools and have been raised in this kind of religious environment choose to go to a university that is similar to it," says Bernasconi. "Some students go straight from confessional schools to universities of the same branch," whether Jesuit, Dominican, or other religion-oriented schools, agrees Mallarino. …