Latin American colleges strapped by tight budgets, tight reins

A modern medical school in Rio de Janeiro sits half empty for lack of money to purchase necessary laboratory equipment. Peruvian students on strike over political issues close college classrooms more days than they are open. Exams in Mexico City are given in a soccer stadium to accommodate the masses of students.

In Latin America, a staggering increase in numbers of students at a time of tight university budgets is just one problem besieging higher education. At the same time, a tradition in some countries of tight government reins on university administration, coupled with a high tolerance for student politicization, have deprived many institutions of the flexibility to respond to mounting difficulties.

These points were brought out in discussions here recently with a group of 25 South American and Central American university administrators on a two-week tour of universities in the United States and Canada. The administrators, representing nine countries, said the tour helped them gain insight into how North American universities are handling such mutual concerns as tightened purse strings and computers for the campus.

They were also able to discuss how other Latin American countries are addressing problems common to them, such as university autonomy, an issue they said did not appear so grave in the north.

''It was a breath of fresh air to hear a representative from the Education Ministry (in Canada) tell us that (on matters of curriculum) it was their role to advise the universities,'' a Brazilian visitor said.

The tour, which took in universities from Florida to Quebec Province, was organized by the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education. Francois Loriot, its executive director, defined the major problem facing institutions of higher education in Latin America as, ''quite simply, one of existence.'' Noting that most of these institutions were created in the last quarter-century, he said lack of funding has left the great majority ill-equipped to offer a complete and modern college education.

Countries from Mexico to Brazil face waves of students who came up through expanded elementary and secondary schooling in the last decade to expect access to college in this decade. Yet the foreign-debt crunch has forced most Latin American nations to trim back plans. Although some countries, such as Ecuador and Chile, do not face intense pressure from population growth, virtually none escape the effects of tightened budgets.

''Most of (the institutions) were just developing their libraries and labs, but the debt crisis has hit hard,'' said Mr. Loriot. Having recently returned from Argentina, he pointed out that ''98 percent of university money there is now going to pay professors' salaries. . . .''

Money for education, he adds, whether from local governments or international organizations such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank - has been channeled increasingly to the elementary and secondary levels.

Representatives of several countries said the inability of public universities to meet demands for classroom seats has led to a proliferation of private schools, which generally suffer from low academic standards and operate primarily as moneymaking ventures.

''The quality in most of these newer private schools is poor and a big disappointment for students who pay a lot for not very much,'' said Rogerio Vahl , former secretary-general of Brazil's Council of Rectors and Professors and current director of the masters program in university administration at the Universidade Federal Santa Catarina. Today about 75 percent of Brazil's 1.5 million college-level students are in private schools - most of which have sprung up since 1967, when the country's college student population was about 200,000.

In Mexico the story is somewhat different, said Ricardo Mercado del Collado, assistant director of the National Association of Universities. He said a number of small private technical institutes have opened in his country, as industry leaders have soured on the quality of education in Mexico's burgeoning universities.

Noting that Mexico's university student population is expected to more than double to 2 million over the next decade, Mr. Mercado del Collado said the new schools have been able to capitalize on concerns over institution size and how it affects education (just one university in Mexico City has a student population topping 300,000). But he said few of the new schools offer better quality than the national universities.

One partial solution to the population problem, said Mr. Mercado Del Collado, would be expanded vocational training for high school students: ''We need to deviate from the tendency toward higher education to some other form of education that will help achieve better employment.''

Another major concern is university autonomy. According to Ismenia de Lima Martins, director of the Brazilian Council of Higher Education, her government's tight control of college curricula means that students in regions that differ vastly in geography and development are required to follow the same course of study.

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