By Andres Oppenheimer

While Latin America's attention was focused on the Venezuelan elections, few paid attention to a news item that should have raised eyebrows - a new ranking of the world's best universities shows a near total absence of Latin American schools.

The London-based Times Higher Education World University Ranking of the world's 400 best universities released Oct. 3 shows that, despite the fact that Brazil is the world's sixth biggest economy and Mexico the 14th, there is not one single Latin American university among the world's best 100, and only four among the world's best 400.

The region's best-ranked school is the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the 158th place. The State University of Campinas, Brazil, is in the group of schools lumped together between the 251st and 275th places, while the Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) are in the ranking's 351-400 group.

There are no universities from Chile, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela or other countries in the region among the world's best 400 higher education institutions. By comparison, there are 22 Asian universities among the world's best 200 and 56 Asian schools among the world's best 400.

Overall, the ranking shows that U.S. universities remain by far the world's best placed - the California Institute of Technology is No. 1 in the world, and seven of the world's top 10 are U.S. schools - but Asian institutions are rising fast. Several Chinese, Japanese and South Korean are moving up in the ranking, while 51 U.S. institutions lost ground compared to last year's ranking.

Two other respected world international rankings released earlier this year show similarly depressing results for Latin America. Neither the London-based QS World University Ranking nor the Shanghai, China-based Jiao Tong University rankings have any Latin American university among their top 100 schools, which are also dominated by U.S., British and Asian institutions.

Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education ranking, told me in a telephone interview that the reasons behind Latin America's poor showing in these rankings include a relatively low state funding for universities, and the universities' below-standard focus on research.

With few exceptions, such as the Sao Paulo state's massive funding for its best universities, most Latin American universities are underfunded, he said. While the United States and South Korea invest 2.6 percent of their GDP in higher education institutions, Chile invests 2.5 percent, and Mexico and Argentina 1.4 percent each, he said.

"Asian nations are investing very heavily in their universities," Baty told me. "World class universities cost money. In Latin America, we see a concentration of resources in universities that have huge numbers of students and are very much focused on providing infrastructure for them, which makes it really difficult to invest in cutting edge research."

Many Latin American governments object to these rankings, claiming that the dozen indicators they use, including surveys of academics around the world and peer-reviewed publications in academic journals, tend to favor English-speaking countries. Several Latin American nations are working on a UNESCO-supported project to produce their own Latin America-only university ranking.

But, according to Baty, his rankings survey includes a geographically weighted participation of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking academics. And language is no excuse for staying behind in the race for academic excellence, he said.

"Asian universities are actively publishing in the English language, because they want their research to have a larger audience and a higher impact," he says. "We are not seeing that in Latin America."

My opinion: I agree. The tendency by many Latin American governments to dismiss the three most prominent world university rankings, and their plans to produce their own ranking confined to Latin American universities, is a recipe for complacency, inaction and backwardness.

Claiming, as they do, that Latin American universities have their own special goals, such as providing free education to the poor, is no excuse for not competing on the world stage. Saying that their own regional ranking will more accurately reflect the region's performance than the world rankings amounts to joining a neighborhood soccer tournament rather than the World Cup.

Instead of being dismissed or ignored, world rankings such as the one released last week should make the front pages in Latin America (and in the United States, too) if nothing else to remind us how Asian countries are steadily rising in the global knowledge economy, while many of our countries in the Americas are being left increasingly behind.


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