Quality in Higher Education – A trendy process in Latin America

9. Dec 2020 | 1st edition: Quality and Innovation, Academ & Qace Up Knowledge Bar, Articles

Higher Education (HE) has been seen as one of the best instruments countries have to increase social mobility. Therefore, people, governments, NGOs and multilateral organisations “campaign” for this noble cause. However, it is also true there are “higher education institutions” all over the world that can be labelled as money-making oriented (where the quality of the education delivered is questionable, to say the least). Given this situation, governments and “independent” agents, some of them international organisations, come into the HE market providing a certification on quality, similar to those in place for businesses using ISO-9000 quality standards, named accreditation.

By Javier Yáñez-Arenas
MBA Director and Senior Lecturer
University of Glasgow

Latin America can be described as being characterised by inequality, diversity and political volatility. However, the region is also filled with a variety of backgrounds ranging from native indigenous people, to the decedents of African slaves in addition to those with European roots, all keeping their respective traditions alive. This, in turn, has produced resilient people, dreamers and well-educated professionals. That diversity also means that the way businesses and social affairs are handled in one country, or in a region within a country, may seem the same to foreign eyes. Nonetheless, the local eye understands the difference that lies beneath the apparent sameness.

For more than twenty years, I had the privilege of being part of a leading business school in Latin America; now, my perspective has been enriched by looking at my region through the lens that an institution with more than 500 years of history has given me. I can say that over the last (at least) four decades, business schools in Latin America have been developing an agenda to be competitive by international standards. Nevertheless, it is also reasonable to question those standards.

In a broader sense, goods and services perceived as quality products, generally speaking, are considered as competitive in the market(s). But, what is quality? People (customers, competitors, partners, suppliers and consumers) ask. Quality is a concept used widely but also loosely. Unfortunately, for day-to-day management decisions, the definition of quality is often blurred – and higher education institutions and business schools are not an exception.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the total quality management (TQM) “movement” reached its peak of popularity, especially among manufacturing companies. Since then, the world certainly has changed and moved towards a service-based economy more reliant on digital technologies. Therefore, what is quality for HEIs? How does a HEI deliver quality services? Who defines if an educational product is of quality?

Based on my experience with MBAs in Latin America and the world, when discussing the quality concept, I refer to a 1985 book “I Know It When I See It: A Modern Fable about Quality” by John Guaspari (translated into Spanish as “Érase una vez una fábrica…Fábula sobre la calidad”). It has a very simple but powerful approach. Its starting point for discussion is the statement “quality is in the eye of the beholder”. If the statement is true, is there the possibility of having an external, “objective eye”, indicating when a product is or is not a quality product? Businesses and HEIs work hard to differentiate themselves in the market. Consequently, each institution tries to offer something “unique”, but in the end, the market will not only judge its uniqueness but also its value depending on whether or not the product/good fulfils its purpose, if it satisfies the customers’ needs and/or expectations. For instance, an MBA programme must include and deliver certain elements in order to be a Master of Business Administration, rather than another academic qualification. Among those elements are concepts, knowledge, skills (hard and soft), and learning experiences.

One key aspect of quality management and continuous improvement is collecting and analysing data in order to understand if a process is under control. Therefore, if HEIs aim to “control” (in terms of assurance of learning) the education processes they are delivering, they also face the challenge of data collection and processing. The analysis of the data may provide information for HEIs to be responsive to what the market (customers and students) perceive and expect to be improved. Not just in relation to the intrinsic characteristics of the service provided (education) but “assuring” the learning process of individuals, if that is possible. At the end, a person learns what he/she wants to learn. With this in mind, the emphasis placed by some HE accreditation bodies on the learning can be seen as very relevant.

When HEIs decide to improve the quality of their educational services, they can change the resources used (better “raw materials”, better “suppliers”, new resources –i.e. technology, etc.), train the people involved, rethink the process of education, redefine the characteristics of a programme/ redesign the programme, or creatively combine previous possibilities. Is data guiding these decisions? If so, what data is collected and analysed? For example, HEIs regularly collect data such as students’ grades as a proxy of their learning, students’ evaluations as a proxy of the quality of teaching, and students’ and academic staff profiles as descriptors of “resources” involved in providing educational services. Then, is this data enough? Perhaps not, but both the data required and its processing are different topics that I will not deepen in this reflection.

Let us consider only one potential dimension for quality improvement, “controlling” and/or using higher quality resources. In HEIs, academic staff is a critical resource and, therefore, accreditation agents have used it as a focus to improve the quality of education. The assumption is that a higher degree (doctoral level) provides a “better”, more sophisticated resource. If the variable that has to be controlled is learning, a valid hypothesis could be: People with PhD degrees are better teachers than those without a doctoral degree; or an alternative hypothesis: People with PhD degrees are better at facilitating the learning process than people without a doctoral degree. I am not an expert in education, but I am aware that researchers are asking questions challenging assumptions associated to HE teaching and learning, and also the importance of including pedagogy courses for PhD students.

In Latin America, and probably in Africa and in Asian developing countries, HE institutions struggle in achieving the “standard” established in and by developed economies in terms of the percentage of PhD holders who are faculty members. A rough portrayal of the problem under the blind assumption that every faculty member teaches (although we know this is not true, some people have only research contracts), can be made by looking at rough figures from Brazil [1]. In 2015 (Brazil was the Latin American country with the highest proportion of PhDs). Of the total number of faculty working in the public HEIs, 57.9% have a PhD, while at the private HEIs only 20.8%. Furthermore, in Brazil 87.5% of the 2,364 HEIs were private, meaning that for the Brazilian system only 25.4% of the faculty hold PhD degrees. If we now consider Colombia, somehow in the middle of the spectrum, estimations indicate that maybe at best the Colombian HEIs system employs 10% of faculty holding a PhD. These figures are very different from the figures top public and private universities in these countries or in other countries in the region may show. Top HEIs in the world often show that more than 70-75% of their faculty hold PhD degrees; but the number of institutions showing these levels of resources might be less than 30 in Latin America.

With this in mind, those HEIs looking for an international accreditation find that some accreditation processes expect that at least 90% of the faculty normally hold doctoral degrees. That could be or is the case in top institutions around the world, but certainly not in developing economies. In developed countries, the percentage of faculty with PhD degrees in the university system is close enough to what accreditors expect but not when considering the HE system as a whole (universities, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, for-profit colleges, independent faculties, technological institutes, etc.). In the case of the US, looking at a complex and diverse HE system, the US statistics indicate that its HE system employs less than 60% faculty with a PhD degree. Again, not just thinking in universities. This reality is a challenge for accreditation bodies that find a constraint in the market (limited number of HEIs “ready” to face the accreditation process) as well as for HEIs that want to improve but are too distant to fulfil the standard.

This example shows the difficulties in defining a point of reference when quality is measured. Consequently, in Latin America, in particular, governments in many countries have been working on developing systems and implementing policies to assure quality in HEIs. In 2014, Brazil [2] had 288 HEIs (202 were universities), with over 6,400 academic programmes available in the country. However, less than 15% (944) had been accredited by the National Accreditation Council – CAN.

The Colombian Government was not the first in developing a quality system for HEIs as other countries like Brazil have been in the game for decades. Unfortunately, as a response of mistrust in Government initiatives, private initiatives are offering tailored, market-specific quality assurance service to HEIs across the region, independent from government regulations or policies. Is a relativistic approach to quality better than an absolute approach (guided by pre-specified standards)? This is open for discussion.

I strongly believe that quality is trendy in Latin America and in the world. Those supporting these processes need to align institutional processes to international standards while creating sustainable capabilities to differentiate its higher education services and programmes.


1 Neves C., (2017), Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Brazil, in Encyclopedia of International Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Springer, DOI: https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/10.1007/978-94-017-9553-1_401-1
2 Orozco L.E., (2017), Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Brazil, in Encyclopaedia of International Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Springer, DOI: https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/10.1007/978-94-017-9553-1_403-1


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