A new study coordinated by CONADU (the National Federation of University Teachers) for Education International examines how privatisation is infringing upon higher education, the threat it poses for education systems, and the options available to unions to resist this process.
Under the title Trends of Privatisation and Commodification of Education in Latin America: the Cases of Argentina, Chile, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, the report sets out the initial findings of research that is currently in progress and will continue over the coming months. The report, which is being presented today in a public event at the National University of Quilmes in the presence of union leaders and academic figures, shows the effects on higher education of a twofold process: in Latin America higher education has become a target for profit-making companies at a time when public funding is in decline. The study concludes that this process is turning education into a marketable service, whereby its status as a right is fading, encouraging trends where access to and quality of education are weakening.
The report examines the phenomenon of “hyper-privatisation” in the region with one of the highest rates of privatisation on the globe when it comes to university education, along with Southern Asia. 55% of enrolment takes place in the private sector, while the figure in Europe stands at 13%. The private sector therefore accounts for a higher number of students than the public sector. In certain countries, student enrolment in the private sector is as high as or even exceeds 70%, as is the case in Chile, El Salvador, Peru, and Puerto Rico. More than 70% of universities belong to the private sector in most countries. Two in every three universities in Latin America are private.
The combination of increased demand and fewer resources in the sector is at the heart of this phenomenon, the study concludes. Many public universities need to be self-funded –either in part or in full– by charging fees or by selling services. In certain cases, as occurs in Chile or Peru, these resources end up being essential for the institutions to survive.
The expansion of private low-cost universities led traditional private universities to be seen in a similar light to public ones. There is an increasingly smaller distinction made between the two types of institutions when it comes to funding from the state; as a result, they have both developed an analogous status among society.
Expansion of power
As they are expanding and gaining traction, private institutions have been acquiring greater leverage in defining public policies. The report reveals that there is a relationship between stakeholders from private universities and the political establishment. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, university associations are set up to benefit from more representatives working in agencies regulating higher education. In Peru, there is a direct relationship with members of parliament based on the sources of income the university accounts for. In all the cases examined, there is integration into ministerial spheres or certain assessment and accreditation agencies. Private, elite universities exist to educate individuals who go on to hold high-ranking positions, creating ties with governments that assure they have lobbying capacity.
Conflicts and challenges
The study includes an urgent call to action for social agents, particularly for education workers who are members of unions. “It is not the university system itself that is at stake, but rather its role in building hegemony and its far-reaching capacity to influence public policy”, the authors clarify.