By Andres Oppenheimer
When I asked Bill Gates in an interview what he thought about Latin Americans’ widespread belief that the region has some of the best universities and scientific research centers in the world, the founder of Microsoft looked at me bewildered. Do they seriously believe that?, he asked.
If Latin Americans are satisfied with their public education systems — as a hemisphere-wide 2008 Gallup/Inter-American Development Bank poll shows — the region has a problem. The key secret for countries’ development is to be humble, and to worry about ones’ shortcomings, as China and India are currently doing, he said.
“The way to start is by feeling bad. With humility,” Gates said. “The best thing that happened to the United States was that we thought that Japan was going to kill us. It was stupid, it was wrong, it was nonsense, but in the 1980s, the humility that we had as a country helped us work harder and get our act together.”
Judging from Gates’ words, Latin America would benefit from a dose of humility about its education, science, technology and innovation systems. According to the Gallup/Inter-American Bank poll, Latin Americans are much more satisfied with their education systems than people in the United States, Germany, or Japan, even if Latin American countries rank near the bottom in international student test scores.
While 85 percent of Costa Ricans, 84 percent of Venezuelans, 80 percent of Nicaraguans, and more than 72 percent of Colombians, Bolivians, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, Salvadorans and Hondurans are happy with their countries’ public education systems, the same is only true for 66 percent of the people in Germany, and 67 percent in the United States, the survey says.
Meantime, despite great progress in literacy rates and school attendance in recent decades, the quality of education in the region is poor. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s world-wide PISA test measuring the proficiency of 15-year-old youths in math, language and sciences, Latin American students get much lower scores than their counterparts almost everywhere else.
In the math test, while students averaged 550 points in Hong Kong, China, 542 in South Korea and 483 in the United States, students from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru scored around 400 points, and those of several other Latin American countries in the 300s.
At the higher education, research and development level, the region’s performance is often even worse. Consider the following facts:
• There is not one single Latin American university among the world’s best-ranked 100 higher education institutions, according to the 2009-2010 Times Higher Education Supplement’s World University Rankings. Likewise, a similar ranking by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University does not place any Latin American university among the world’s best 100.
Both rankings include several universities from Singapore, China, India, South Korea, Malaysia, Israel, and New Zealand among the world’s best. If one takes into account that Brazil and Mexico are among the world’s 12 largest economies, they should long have placed at least some of their universities among the world’s 100 best.
• Of all the funds invested in research and development worldwide, less than 2 percent is spent in Latin America, according to Ibero-American Science and Technology Observatory (RICYT). Comparatively, nearly 30 percent of the world pool of R & D funds are being spent in Asian countries, it says.
CHINA VS. BRAZIL
While China invests 1.4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product in research and development — much of which comes from private sector firms — Brazil invests only 0.9 percent, Argentina 0.6 percent, Mexico 0.4 percent and Colombia and Peru 0.1 percent, respectively.
• While Asian universities are producing tens of thousands of patents that generate a huge income in royalties for themselves and for their countries, Latin America’s universities are barely producing any patents. Mexico’s UNAM, one of the region’s universities with the most international patents, registered only four patents in the United States, while Argentina’s UBA registered none.
This helps explain why a relatively small Asian country such as South Korea, which only 50 years ago was much poorer than most Latin American countries, registers 80,000 patents a year internationally, compared with fewer than 600 patents registered by Brazil, about 300 from Mexico, and 80 from Argentina, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
• Only 27 percent of college-age Latin American youth are enrolled in higher education institutions, compared with 69 percent of their peers in industrialized countries, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures.
• Of those Latin Americans who are in college, most study social sciences. While the global economy demands growing numbers of engineers, scientists and technicians, 57 percent of Latin American college students are pursuing degrees in social sciences, while only 16 percent are studying engineering or technology, according to the Madrid, Spain-based Ibero-American States Organization.
At Argentina’s state-run University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Argentina’s largest, there are 29,000 psychology students, and 8,000 engineering students — which means the country is preparing the equivalent of three psychologists to take care of the mental problems of each engineer. At the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico’s largest state-run university, there are three times more students pursuing degrees in history than in computer sciences.
REASONS FOR HOPE
Chinese universities accept 1.2 million engineering students a year, compared with 16,000 history students.
Is Latin America’s education situation hopeless? Not at all. During my research over the past five years, I have found several bright spots, which could help some countries achieve high educational standards sooner than many expect.
Chile is beginning to use a recently created $6 billion fund from copper exports to grant 6,500 post-graduate scholarships abroad, which will allow Chilean college graduates to pursue their masters’ and doctoral degrees — mostly in sciences and engineering — in the best U.S., Canadian, and European universities.
Brazil’s universities are awarding 10,000 Ph.D.s annually, dwarfing the number of doctoral graduates in other Latin American countries, and the government has announced it will increase its investments in science, technology and innovation to 1.5 percent of the country’s GDP. Brazil is already making inroads worldwide in some high-tech industries, with companies such as the aircraft manufacturer Embraer.
Uruguay recently became the world’s first country to give one laptop per child to all students in public schools. With most of these Internet-connected computers in place, even in the most remote places of the country, Uruguay is creating a new generation of digitally savvy children who are significantly increasing their skills.
The list of exciting things that are happening on Latin America’s education front is much wider. In addition, judging from what we have seen in the rags to riches stories of countries such as Singapore and South Korea, we now know that countries can improve their education systems and create highly skilled professional classes in relatively short periods of time.
But the first step, as Gates said, should be accepting the sobering reality that the region is being increasingly left behind in the world-wide race for high education standards and competitive work forces. Then, as I found in my reporting trips to several Asian countries, there are many practical things that Latin American families could do — and American families, too — to help improve the quality of education in their countries, and in their homes.
Humbleness and a greater family focus on the quality of their children’s learning process would help put education at the center of countries’ political agendas. That would make the region more competitive in the global economy, and help it to dramatically reduce poverty.
© 2010 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
Posted on Sun, Sep. 26, 2010