The Permanent Crisis of the Public University
Pablo Gentili is a professor in the political philosophy and education faculty at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Translated from the Spanish by Marcial Godoy.
A few moments of institutional splendor aside, the history of the Latin American university is a history of crisis. Indeed, because the words “crisis” and “university” go hand in hand in Latin America, and because the deep problems in which the university system now finds itself are so complex and vary so much from institution to institution, it is difficult to talk about the “crisis” in the singular. These reservations notwithstanding, there are some general trends worth commenting on — trends, in fact, that throw some light on the current state of the Americas.
Governments, private investors, international organizations and the universities themselves often proclaim that the future of the Latin American university is linked to the establishment of active research agencies that advance scientific knowledge. With a few rare exceptions, however, university-based research is not a regular and systematic activity in Latin America. Few Latin American universities have the financial and human resources required to sustain a systematic program of scientific research.
A number of factors have contributed to this situation. First and foremost is the fact that the region’s frequent interruptions of democratic rule have draped a veil of obscurantism on the development of scientific knowledge. This, in turn, has led to an exodus of some of the most promising and accomplished intellectuals from institutions of higher learning. Second, there has been an emphasis in many of the more traditional universities on training of employable professionals, which has often led to separation of “practical” courses of study from institutionalized programs of university-based research. Linked to this is the fact that universities that do have active research agendas often limit them to a narrow set of practical scientific fields, such as medicine, agronomy and engineering.
Another factor undermining university-based research is the significant growth of the student population, which began in the 1950s and has greatly intensified since the 1970s. This growth of the student body has led to the adoption of policies that have prioritized teaching over research in order to meet demand. Faculties are now hired primarily to teach, and few incentives are offered to promote research. Finally, there are still relatively few postgraduate programs in Latin American universities, an essential condition for the consolidation of a lasting research policy in the medium and long term.
There is clearly a demand for some institutions of higher learning to expand the development of scientific research programs. But what are such programs likely to look like in this neo-liberal age? In the context of the current dominance of transnational business and finance, the Latin American scientific community is losing the power to define the research agendas of its own universities. From the perspective of educational policy, there will always be disagreement, conflict and negotiation over the themes and problems that define or should define those scientific research agendas. The point is not to deny or lament this fact. The crucial problem here is who benefits. The problem is not so much that academics are losing the power to define their own research agendas; it is, rather, that market-driven entities with little historical concern for scientific progress are winning that power in the context of the hegemony of neo-liberalism in Latin America today.
The present crisis of Latin American education cannot be reduced simply to economic causes. Yet it would also be a mistake to overlook the regressive effects of the sharp cuts in public spending on education, which have taken place throughout the region in recent years. Budget cuts and the failure to increase public funding for higher education clearly jeopardize the development of a long-term agenda of scientific research. While public universities have fared slightly better than primary and secondary schools, where public funding has nose-dived in the past decade and a half, the situation is still grave. Latin America currently has one of the lowest rates of per-student public spending in the world. As the university population has grown since the early 1980s, the number of faculty hired has also increased in order to keep student-to-faculty ratios relatively constant. The budgets for public education, however, have not increased proportionately, meaning that the salaries of academic personnel have fallen precipitously. In Argentina for example, university professor salaries were 60 percent lower in 1993 than in 1980.
In fact, since a big slice of all university budgets in Latin America goes to pay faculty salaries, cutting those salaries — sometimes by simply allowing real earnings to deteriorate during periods of high inflation, as occurred in Brazil in 1989 — has been a relatively easy way to reduce government spending. This, of course, has had a powerfully negative impact on the ability of the public universities to function as research institutions.
In the 1990s, these trends have continued as a result of the explicit policy of governments to cut back public spending on higher education in order to prioritize the funding of primary education. This trend, which is supported by the World Bank, suggests that in the medium term, no substantial increase in public university funding is likely. In this context, some observers have suggested that universities restructure their fiscal operations in order to operate more “efficiently” on their reduced budget allocations. While such restructuring is certainly called for in many instances, budget cuts have prompted most universities to focus almost exclusively on obtaining alternative financing. In some cases, there has been private investment in public universities, and faculties are being encouraged to obtain outside funding. Other institutions have sought to impose tuition fees on the student population. The result has been a reduction in the role of public agencies and an increasing institutional reliance on the private sector.
In the context of the region’s ongoing financial crisis, there are two identifiable trends that further confirm the loss of university autonomy in the formulation of scientific research agenda: the deterioration of those agencies whose mission is to fund and/or promote research, and the growing move toward the privatization of university services.
In some Latin American countries, there is a specific allocation for research funds within the general education budget. There are also special funds administered by official agencies for the promotion of scientific research. This latter type of contractual financing consists of a wide variety of subsidies for the maintenance of research programs, institutional support, hiring specialized personnel and scholarship funds. The best-known agencies of this type include:
- The National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) in Argentina (created in 1958)
- The Foundation for Higher Education Training (CAPES) in Brazil (1954)
- The National Council of Science and Technology (CNPq) in Brazil (1954)
- The National Council of Science and Technical Research (CONICYT) in Chile (1968)
- The Scientific and Technological Fund for Scientific Development (FONDECYT) in Chile (1981)
- The National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) in Mexico (1968)
A significant part of the funding for university research in the region depends on these agencies, but the growing decline of public financing has brought many of these institutions to the verge of collapse, creating considerable structural difficulties for the promotion of scientific research. During the periods of military rule in Argentina and Chile, for example, CONICET, CONICYT and FONDECYT had to confront strong ideological controls and serious financing problems. These conditions improved during the early years of the transitions to democracy, but funding cuts during the second half of the 1990s have placed these agencies once again in jeopardy. The situation is the reverse in Brazil. Funding actually increased under the military regime for agencies like CONACYT, CNPq and CAPES to support research projects and training programs, as well as fellowships for graduate study abroad. It was during the return to democratic rule in the 1980s that funding began to dwindle. By the early 1990s, the Brazilian government was spending one-sixth of what it spent on scientific development in the mid-1960s.
In another significant development, over the past decade privatization processes have fundamentally restructured the systems of Latin American higher education. Private institutions are attracting a growing number of students and are beginning to dominate national university systems. In Brazil, Chile and Colombia, over half of the student population is enrolled in private universities. In Argentina and Brazil, more than a third of the universities are private. Only Cuba and Haiti lack a private university sector. Even in Uruguay, where until very recently the tradition of public education was very strong, there has been a remarkable growth of private universities.
The growth of the private sector per se does not itself explain the growing loss of research autonomy on the part of public university communities. In fact, the private universities are not, on the whole, strong in the area of research and scientific production. The few private institutions that have developed strong research programs are religious universities and a handful of elite secular institutions, and they have done so primarily through public funding. It is not these research-oriented private universities, however, that have proliferated over the past two decades. On the contrary, the majority of newly formed private universities in Latin America are based on quick profitability, not research. Their principal objective is to capture the growing student demand for courses and diplomas — constituting virtual academic supermarkets of dubious pedagogical quality and with no commitment to scientific production.
Those few private research-oriented universities have also suffered the crunch of public funding. Their research programs have suffered, as has their ability to train new researchers. Cuts have not only compromised the ability of universities to define their scientific agenda, but have threatened the very existence of rigorous academic research committed to the production of scientific knowledge.
The negative effects of privatization, however, do not end with budget cuts. Privatization not only implies a diminishing role of the state, but a complete redefinition of its functions. It is precisely in the context of this redefinition that the autonomy of the university community on scientific matters is most seriously undermined. The problem is not simply the increase in the number of private institutions, nor can it be reduced to simple economic terms; the privatization process under way in the Latin American university system is far more complex, and its reach far more extreme.
In the arena of social policy, “privatization” does not necessarily mean the “acquisition” or “sale” of businesses. The privatization of social policy by neo-liberal regimes must be understood as a process of delegation. Through a variety of institutional mechanisms, public responsibilities are transferred to private entities. To privatize, in this sense, means to delegate functions. While one of the most powerful means to accomplish this is through the sale of public enterprises to private capital, this is not really viable in the educational arena. Ongoing university reforms are a dramatic example of the fact that in education, privatization can move forward without the sale of any institution.
Delegation can take two forms: the delegation of financing (who pays) and the delegation of supply (who provides). [See figure 1] The delegation of financial responsibilities from the government to individuals, families and private enterprise leads to an increase in the number of private institutions, a dynamic we have already mentioned. The delegation of supply, however, does not necessarily mean a reduction of the state’s financial responsibility. In certain cases, it can mean the opposite. What it entails is the transfer of particular public educational responsibilities, which are now supplied by the private sector even as they are still financed by the state.
Scenarios in Higher Education by Source of Financing and Supply
Source of Financing
1.1 Public Schools
1.2 Privatization of Funding
Delegation of public financing to the users of the system while maintaining public provision of services
2.1 Privatization of Supply
Delegation of the provision of public educational services to individual groups or private entities while maintaining public financing
2.2 Private Schools Total Privatization
Institutional arrangements that presuppose the total (or almost total) delegation of the financing of educational servies to individuals, groups or private entities
Figure 1 lays out the four possible combinations of the “financing” and “supply” variables in terms of the public/private distinction. Traditional public schools fall into quadrant 1.1 as institutions in which both financing and supply are from the public sector. The remaining three quadrants encompass the diverse modalities and degrees of privatization (2.2, total privatization; 1.2, the delegation of financing; 2.1, the delegation of supply).
As mentioned earlier, the privatization of education generally falls under the modalities exemplified by the state’s total or partial abandonment of its responsibility as the provider of education. Figure 1 also points to the existence of other very important forms of delegation/privatization which contribute to the loss of university autonomy.
The almost fundamentalist emphasis on the virtues of the market as the most efficient avenue for capturing financial resources for teaching, research and extension activities not only challenges the role of the state, but also enthrones mercantile and productivity-oriented criteria in the allocation and distribution of public funds. Privatization in education can mean the reduction of public investment or the restructuring of state spending following market-oriented principles of efficiency and profitability. The reduction and restructuring of the state, moreover, can be implemented at the same time.
In such a scheme, postgraduate programs can be developed by delegating the financing of such programs to the users through fees or the sale of services that allow the self-financing of the courses offered. Scientific policy, moreover, can be promoted by a system of rewards that distributes public funds by means of efficiency and productivity criteria. In this case, the state does not decrease its financial contribution and may even expand it, benefiting those agencies or institutions which best respond to those modes of evaluation (modality 2.1 in Figure 1).
This is how the market begins to play a normative role and displace the scientific criteria that are conventionally used by the academic community to define its research agenda. As Judith Sutz has stated:
The university has always been comprised of hidden disagreements, incomprehensions and reciprocal mistrust. Historically, it was the “pure” academics who were the standard-bearers of the institutional ethos; today it is the “applied” academics who are carrying the flag. In this context, the extent to which a group of researchers is able to finance their own activities becomes a measure not only of how socially useful they are, but also of their academic legitimacy.
Such a measure of academic legitimacy, in turn, further legitimizes market criteria in the allocation of resources — criteria that, when it comes to defining budget lines, seem to be far more appealing than those offered by the academic community.
A similar trend is evident in the evaluation of educational institutions. It has been widely noted that evaluative processes generate funding priorities that — as they reward “the best” and punish “the worst” –themselves turn into powerful normative criteria. These become a kind of unofficial curriculum, which regulates and strongly influences the pedagogical decision making of educational institutions. Evaluations, in this case, not only “evaluate”; they also establish criteria for planning and goals which must be implemented and met in order to avoid punitive measures in the future.
In a similar manner, the criteria established by the agencies that promote and finance university research — often guided by market-based conceptions of questionable validity — themselves become the normative mechanisms that define the research agenda. Whoever wishes to conduct research must follow these criteria. Those who do not can hardly expect to survive in a field in which competitiveness requires subordination to the needs and demands of the market. This is yet another factor in the growing loss of control on the part of the academic community over the formulation of its research agenda.
In neo-liberal Latin America, “societal demands” are often presented as “demands of the market” — a euphemism used by those in power to refer to the interests of the business sector. University research at the service of such societal demands generally means research at the service of private enterprise.
This is particularly worrisome in light of the historic attitudes of Latin American businessmen toward education, particularly higher education. In both relative and absolute terms, the role played by private enterprise in the development of scientific and technological development in the region has been relatively small. While overall investment in scientific research has always been sparse, it has historically been the state that has provided the vast majority of the resources for such endeavors. Even in Brazil, where private enterprise has always played a dynamic role in technological investment, private resources for scientific development in the late 1980s were a paltry 0.09 percent of the gross national product (GNP). This is in striking contrast to the developed world, where private-sector support of research and development is quite high.
The problem is not only that the Latin American private sector has invested little in scientific research, but that what little it has invested has not, in general terms, been directed to the universities — public or private. The university as an institution, whether public or private, seems to generate little interest among the national and transnational economic groups operating in Latin America. That is the case even though the business community is purportedly a major “client” of scientific knowledge produced by public and private research centers.
Politicians also frequently express a mistrust of the academy. In light of this — and the impossibility of exerting complete control over institutions of higher education — political and business sectors have created parallel institutions to carry out training and research activities that would otherwise be developed within universities.
For example, institutions belonging to particular companies or corporations are frequently funded by private sources to carry out research and development. Private investment in the social sciences, in like manner, is directed primarily toward specialized think tanks that undertake policy-oriented research and train the technical and political professionals who fill the ranks of state institutions and private-sector agencies. With the exception of Chile, and to some extent Mexico and Brazil, these think tanks exist outside the realm of the university system and often develop in open opposition to both private and public universities.
The loss of autonomy on the part of the academic community is not necessarily bad news. Intellectual arrogance and entrenched corporatism have frequently distanced academies from social needs and societal demands. These needs and demands, however, are much broader and more substantive than those formulated by businessmen and the institutions that represent their interests. The problem is not the fact that the academic community has lost its power. The problem is that the market has won it.
It is the market — and those who act in its name — that has won the power to define research agendas in the region. This, in turn, has unleashed a series of negative consequences. The state, assaulted for its alleged lack of efficiency, has retreated in some cases, and those instances in which it retains a presence, it has shifted emphasis, promoting market-based criteria for the distribution of resources. The focus behind the market are the most powerful sectors of society, who have contributed precious little to scientific and technological development in Latin American nations. They remain as central and powerful players, demanding little, if anything, other than “useful,” profitable knowledge from the university.
Current neo-liberal policies have privatized the priorities of scientific and technological research. Making this agenda public is an ethical and political challenge, but it cannot be with the purpose of re-establishing a self-indulgent, distant and arrogant academic community. The academic community must engage itself in the monumental problems facing a region in which social inequality, the concentration of wealth and the disparities between rich and poor are among the worst in the world. Engaging the university in these problems is a challenge that must be taken up by academic researchers — as well as many others, of course. It is here that links and networks with other sectors of society must be established. These sectors include the business community, political parties, labor unions, civic associations, human rights organizations, peasant groups and social movements. This is a prerequisite to making scientific agendas representative of the interests of groups other than those that today, through the power of money or intellectual arrogance, continue to monopolize them.
The preceding article originally appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas; Vol. 33:4 pages 12-19. Copyright 2000 by the North American Congress on Latin America, 475 Riverside Drive #454, New York, N.Y. 10115.