U.S. can learn from strengths, weaknesses of Latin American universities

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Editor's Note: This column is the first in a series on higher education abroad from UT-Austin students who are currently studying outside the U.S. 

After having studied in both Argentina and the U.S., I’ve come to the conclusion that the U.S. has better research institutions, but that Latin American universities are more rigorous in their general course material. The Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and the University of Texas are similar in size, both are public institutions and daily life shows the common annoyances that students around the world face: unhealthy snacks on breaks from a jam-packed class schedule, students seeking refuge in outdoor areas and panicking over final exams.

However, the differences between the two institutions reflect a divergence in educational philosophy. These differences sometimes elicit moral judgments about the superiority of the U.S. and European university systems over Latin American universities, which are perceived as “politicized” and “old-fashioned,” according to the Economist article “Universities in Latin America: The Struggle to Make the Grade.”

But this parochialism prevents higher education institutions in the U.S. from learning from the strengths and the weaknesses of their Latin American counterparts. 

The strength of the U.S. system is its emphasis on originality, while its weakness is its tendency to downplay theoretical questions in the humanities. 

And while Argentine universities are solid on philosophy and critical thinking, they place more emphasis on memorizing eminent scholars than getting a head start on contributing to the debate.

Economics also drives differences between Latin American universities and American ones. 

Since the formation of the Argentine education system by President Julio Argentino Rocha in 1884, Argentina’s education has been both high-quality and free. This allows for student diversity. 

It has also made Argentine education more attractive to South American neighbors. However, a free system without much private money can easily be drained by high dropout rates (76 percent, according to Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, a private Argentine university, compared to 44 percent for the U.S., according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education), due in part to the lack of requirements for re-entry or repayment. 

This system is in stark contrast to the U.S., where students pay, and a system of private endowments maintains facilities and provides abundant funding for students like myself to study across the world.

Of course, the downside is that the quality of U.S. education and resources available has not risen with tuition, for example the 4 percent rise each year at UT before the tuition freeze.  Rising costs saddle students even from “affordable” schools such as ours with more than $24,000 in student debt in an economy with a youth (typically ages 18-25) unemployment rate, according to USA Today, of 16 percent. 

Another difference between the two systems? In Argentina, academic tracks are precise; specifying which courses will be taken which semesters. When I enrolled in fourth- and fifth-year courses simultaneously, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. 

And while, according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book “Academically Adrift,” U.S. universities are offering less reading than they used to, Argentine courses provide a range of theory that U.S. students, in our obsession with case studies and practical application, tend to underemphasize. (Anyone who has attended a survey course can testify to its “breadth over depth” approach.) 

Cultural differences play a role in academic freedom and the student-teacher relationship as well. Professors in Argentina can seem distant, and many Argentine students are surprised when U.S. professors go out of their way to make themselves “approachable.” 

In Argentina, professors do not receive tenure, instead passing through “concursos” which re-evaluate their performance every few years. It is possible for professors to be replaced as a result of these “concursos,” for both academic and political reasons. 

While re-evaluation prevents complacency, some, such as Julio Durand, a Fulbright Scholar from Austral University in Buenos Aires who has studied the Argentine university system, believe this lack of stability negatively affects research quality and professor retention.

This has all created an image in the U.S. of Latin American universities as inferior (QS World Rankings are often used to justify this perception), and indeed, in areas like the natural sciences, where material resources such as lab equipment are key, Latin American universities are at a disadvantage. 

However, the inferiority generalization is a mistake. Resources do not make the student; the ability to think critically does. Instead of looking down on other systems, we must ask ourselves: How do we continue to capitalize on our ‘originality’ emphasis? Is our reading too light? Are we too focused on practicality over ideas? By recognizing what Latin American universities offer, as well as what they don’t, we can better reflect on and improve our own system.

Knoll is a first-year master's student in Latin American studies from Dallas.