When it comes to ranking higher education providers in Latin America, Brazil is a clear winner.

Last year’s inaugural Times Higher Education Latin American University Rankings featured five Brazilian universities in the top 10, including overall leader São Paulo University – the only Latin American university to appear inside the top 300 in a listing of the world’s top universities.

Overall, Brazillian universities occupy 23 of the top 50 Latin American slots in the rankings.

Speaking to Times Higher Education (THE), Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile, said that Brazil’s success in the ranking reflected its high research outputs, high production of patents, and high research and development spending as a proportion of gross domestic product (1.15%) compared with its regional neighbours, such as Mexico (0.426%) and Chile (0.363%).

Image: World Economic Forum

Spending freeze

While Brazil currently dominates higher education in Latin America, there are fears that progress at Brazillian universities will stall in the years to come.

This is due to a controversial spending cap agreed by Brazil’s senate in December 2016. The cap, known as PEC 55, will limit public spending increases to the rate of inflation for the next 20 years.

Given how inflation is benchmarked, Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos, associate professor in economics at the University of Campinas (ranked 2nd in the THE Latin American universities table), estimates education spending per child will fall by almost a third, and health outlays per patient will decrease by almost 10%.

The spending freeze is being protested both by students occupying schools and by academics, with 19 higher education bodies writing a letter to the government asking them to exclude science and education from PEC 55.

In article published by Nature magazine, Brazillian scientists have warned the spending cuts will spell “the end of science” in Brazil. This is because, as the chart below shows, since the Brazilian economy slumped in 2014 fuelled by depressed oil prices, spending on science has already fallen to its lowest level in the last seven years.

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Image: Nature

Chile’s opportunity

In a 2013 OECD working paper The rationale for higher education investment in Ibero-America, Brazil was only one of three Latin American countries to invest more than the OECD average in education, which is 1.5% of GDP.

Of the other two nations to invest above the OECD average – Chile and Colombia – it is Chile that looks best placed to take advantage if, as predicted, the PEC 55 spending freeze means Brazil’s spending on higher education falls as a percentage of GDP.

The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the University of Chile were placed third and fourth respectively in the THE Latin American University Ranking, and overall Chilean universities accounted for 11 of the top 50 higher education institutions in the region.

Indeed, Chile was named by Times Higher Education as a country to watch when it comes to higher education.

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Image: The Times Higher Education

While Chile has battled its own economic headwinds due to the slump in the price of copper and other commodities mined in the country, its government has opted to move in the opposite direction to Brazil and increase funding for education and health, doing so at the expense of investment in other areas.

The road ahead for higher education in Latin America

With growing populations placing extra demand on higher education, Latin American universities are facing significant challenges.

The economic situation is the biggest hurdle, according to J. Salvador Peralta, associate professor and chair at the University of West Georgia’s department of political science. Dr Peralta, who researches higher education policymaking in Latin America, told Times Higher Education that instability caused by commodity price volatility has made it difficult to meet demand.

For-profit higher education organizations have been a success story in the region, according to some. But numerous small, private providers make it difficult to ensure consistent quality and standards, according to Dr Peralta.

Research output is also low across the region. Under 2% of around 4,000 Latin American institutions had research published in internationally recognized journals from 2006 and 2010, according to an OECD paper.

This THE charts shows the publication rate of the region’s universities. The University of São Paulo stands head and shoulders above other Latin American institutions.

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Image: THE Latin American University Rankings 2016

But better regional integration, communication and decision-making could help boost research output, according to Andrea Detmer, a former policy advisor at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.