Public research universities in Latin America and their relation to economic development
Moreno-Brid, Juan Carlos
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In 1990, the average incidence of poverty and extreme poverty in Latin America was 48.3 per cent and 22.5 per cent respectively. The slow economic expansion experienced since then plus the reorientation of public spending towards social needs managed to only partially alleviate this situation, but was far from sufficient. Indeed, in 2005, 38.5 per cent of Latin America’s total population of 556 million was still poor (ECLAC, 2006). This percentage is similar to the one recorded in 1980, thus implying that the absolute number of poor people in our region is much higher today than twenty five years ago. This impoverishment has been accompanied by the deterioration of labor market conditions, with informality and open unemployment reaching historical peaks. Given this pressing social context, it is evident that Latin America faces the urgent challenge of achieving high and sustained rates of economic expansion and of employment to alleviate poverty. To meet this challenge, it will have to modernize its productive structure, its machinery and capital equipment, to be able to compete in world markets on the basis, not of low wages, but of increased value added and technological sophistication. Such transformation requires an increasingly qualified labor force combined with a dynamic entrepreneurial sector with a strong commitment to innovate. Such combination is indispensable to reduce the gap in the region’s pace of technological and scientific progress -and ultimately economic development- relative to industrialized nations. The challenge is daunting given Latin America’s laggard economic performance, and the constraints imposed on the region policy options by global markets and international capital flows. The situation was been further complicated in Latin America by the Washington-Consensus based reforms that weakened the State’s capacity to intervene in the economy and brought about a reduction in public investment that was far from fully compensated by the private sector. As we here argue, strengthening Latin Americas’ public universities -and in general its institutions of higher learning and research- is a key requirement to increase the international competitiveness of its productive structure and enter a platform of high and long-term economic expansion. Indeed, in the region, public universities are the key institutions that keep pace with advances in science and technology. Without this knowledge it will be highly improbable for the region to succeed in its quest for economic development. What is the economic impact of public universities? What are the channels through which public research universities foster technological innovation in Latin America? How can these channels be made more efficient and effective to promote economic development? What are their main obstacles in this regard? Before addressing some of these issues, an important caveat is necessary. This is that assessing the economic impact of universities in developing countries is not an exercise carried out frequently. For example, although since the 1990s there has been a rapidly growing literature on this issue for developed economies, just a few months ago concluded the first ever study to quantify the economic effect of Cambridge University (CU). According to its results, its impact on the British economy amounts to a total of 58 billion pounds over a ten year period (CAM, 2007). For Latin American universities a similar exercise is yet to be carried out. One of the obstacles to do so is the lack of some of the data necessary to apply the methodologies designed for developed nations. It is important to stress from the beginning that by addressing their economic effect our research focuses only on one aspect of the diverse roles and responsibilities of Public Universities. Moreover, in our view, their economic impact is just one aspect of their social influence in developing countries, and not necessarily the most relevant one. In fact, we tend to agree with the view that in Latin America, Public Universities are the conscience of the society in which they emerge (Palencia, 1982). Indeed, these institutions have been fundamental influences in building citizenship and in strengthening democratic values in our region. As an illustration, recall that in Latin America’s not too distant undemocratic past it was unfortunately rather frequent to see troops or paramilitary groups entering public universities’ premises to violently repress professors/student organizations and jail or disappear some of their leaders. In addition, in our region, public universities have and still play a key role in teaching and research advancement in philosophy, and many fields of arts and sciences; some of which typically tend to be inadequately funded or covered by private institutions. And, given their much lower fees, Public Universities have traditionally been a fundamental entry-door to higher education for middle classes and -to a certain extent- lower classes lacking the means to pay private graduate training. These functions strengthen social cohesion, the creation of human capital, and the diffusion of knowledge. In synthesis, and for the above mentioned reasons, the contribution of Public Universities to Latin America’s development covers a series of social, cultural and political functions that can not be assessed exclusively in terms of their economic impact. In particular, we believe that Public Universities in Latin American play a key role in preserving and expanding our culture and historical heritage, a role of most importance in the context of globalization.