Latin America: issues and challenges in education

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The Latin American region covers an area of more than 20 million square kilometers and has an estimated population of 667 million inhabitants. Despite having just 13% of the earth's terrestrial land, it is home to 40% of the planet's biodiversity. It also has a third of the world's freshwater and more than a quarter of the world's forests and arable land.

Despite its natural and cultural value, Latin America has great geographic diversity and high levels of economic and social inequality, which is reflected in its educational systems and the challenges they face. There is such a variety of experiences throughout this vast territory, that it is very hard to generalize. However, it is safe to say that inclusion and access to education continue to be one of the main challenges for the region.

Studies carried out in Latin America and the Caribbean Region by specialized international organizations such as UNESCO have shown that, in 21 countries, the probability of students from the richest 20% of the population completing upper secondary school is, on average, five times higher than that of students from the poorest 20%. Likewise, identity, origin and skills determine educational opportunities, with indigenous people, people of African descent, and people with disabilities being the most affected groups. Similarly, it should be noted that discrimination mechanisms, stereotypes and stigmatization affect all students at risk of exclusion and have an impact on their learning.

Julio Durand, Academic Secretary at Universidad Austral in Argentina, says "The situation of education in Argentina, and similarly throughout the region, can be summarized through contrasts that make generalizations difficult. Promising realities coexist with serious problems of inclusion and access".

When asked about the main challenges faced by education systems in Latin America, he reflects, "A serious challenge in the region is stability. It affects all areas of society, but in education it becomes especially relevant. For instance, public education policies need to be durable and avoid undergoing this continuous one-step-forward, two-steps-back situation that comes as a result of changes in management and government. To really achieve results in the education arena requires very long periods of time which exceed the presidential-election-driven logic that rules our country and others in the region. Agreeing on lines of work or clear objectives to implement the deep educational reforms that are necessary to ensure quality education for all should be a priority commitment for parties and candidates competing in this year's general elections. This must somehow be 'protected' from the unfulfillable promises which we, the population, are sadly used to".

Groups of experts have reflected on this issue and concluded that, in many cases, higher education institutions not only do not contribute to reducing exclusion but rather deepen it. Moreover, elitism is not unique to private education; in many countries of the region, even public higher education is inaccessible. This further deepens existing inequalities in Latin American societies.

In recent decades, there has been an intense debate on the scope and content of the right to education and alternative solutions for its effective fulfilment. The issue has been included in government agendas and significant progress has been made, as reflected in the fact that 60% of the countries in the region now have a clear definition of education as a human right. However, this is only the first step on a long road to real inclusion, as these definitions are often not put into practice through concrete measures and the system continues to exclude many marginalized groups. It is important to highlight that several ministries of education in Latin American and Caribbean countries have been very active in the formulation and promotion of laws relating to individual groups, such as people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, and gender-diverse people, but there is still a need to broaden these laws and promote effective policies that guarantee access to education for all.

"At Universidad Austral, we promote research on educational public policies. The University's School of Education has launched the PhD in Education with this priority orientation. Producing scientific evidence on the state of education at different levels and in the country's different jurisdictions is the basis for agreeing on improvement actions, such as narrowing the learning gap between children in the poorest provinces and those in the most developed districts", shared Julio Durand, commenting also on the important role that Business Schools must play in order to multiply the impact. "We have promoted the PhD in Higher University Education (HUE) together with the UAI and the UNRN, which trains managers and teachers from universities throughout the region, and we believe that it will be a key factor in multiplying the impact of quality education that contributes to transforming the social reality of so much inequality that characterizes Latin America".

Latin American countries have been pioneers in allocating social aid to promote education. According to a UNESCO report, since 1990, governments have carried out a series of cash transfers that have prolonged school attendance by up to one and a half years and more recently have developed programs that combine education with other social services, particularly in early childhood. These advances in inclusion have not always been matched in terms of educational quality.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, education in Latin America was stuck at low levels of achievement in the basic competencies that form the foundation for further learning. The Regional Comparative and Explanatory Regional Study (ERCE 2019), published in November 2021 by Unesco's regional office for Latin America, revealed that 60% of students in the sixth grade of primary school did not reach the minimum level of fundamental competencies in reading and mathematics. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious educational impact[1] that has deepened this scenario.

On the other hand, at a time when digital technology is becoming increasingly relevant and important, another major challenge facing the region is the need for digital literacy: both in the development of digital skills and new teaching methods that incorporate virtual environments as drivers of learning, and in access to computer tools for low-income institutions and students. The first requires rethinking the traditional explain-apply/verify teaching model. The digital divide in Latin America was made yet more obvious by the pandemic, highlighting once again the disparities in the region in terms of resources, adaptability and educational competencies, depending on the type of institution, socio-economic level of its students, and enabling conditions of the country concerned, etc.

"Lifelong learning is an increasingly widespread trend around the world. The return of adults to the classroom is becoming more frequent, even more so with the facilities provided by online education and its expansion during the two years of the pandemic. For this trend to be consolidated and transformed into equitably distributed social goods, the State must promote and encourage the development of a quality educational offer accessible to the entire population, giving priority to those in most urgent need and most disadvantaged, and relying on all institutions capable of carrying out these actions, whether state or privately managed", says Julio Durand. "Legislation that is consistent with these objectives should be promoted: scholarship and aid systems, an appropriate employment program for those who decide to study, tax breaks and the promotion of collaboration between scientific and educational institutions and the productive sector, etc.", he adds.

Education is a fundamental human right recognized by many international Declarations and Conventions to which most Latin American countries have subscribed or adhered. It is also a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. Therefore, the lack of access to quality education not only implies the violation of this right but also puts at risk the fragile democratic systems in Latin America. Ensuring inclusion and access to education should be considered a common duty. Although much of the action is in the hands of the governments, which develop educational and financing policies, private sector and civil society organizations must also participate in developing initiatives to reduce exclusion and segregation in Latin American societies.

"The ethical view of education is key if we want to overcome opportunistic and short-term behaviors. promotes this vision, emphasizing sustainability and inclusion. Collaboration and networking among institutions is an approach that overcomes the market-driven logic that dominates the current offering of online education 'global providers'. Educating implies being open to the needs of others, to the humanist traditions that have expressed the richness of the human spirit in the arts and sciences," concludes Julio.

Eugenia Barroso
Latin America Regional Officer

[1] Nota Ténica del BID 2447. “¿Qué ha sucedido con la educación en América Latina durante la pandemia?”.

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