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31st Mar 2014

Growing education participation in Latin America expected to lead to greater demand for study abroad

Participation in higher education increased dramatically across Latin America and the Caribbean from 1970 to 2000 and is currently estimated at 11 - 12% of global enrolment. It is estimated that Latin America and the Caribbean will be the third largest global region in terms of higher education enrolments by 2035. A number of Latin American nations, notably Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Argentina, have well-regarded education systems and have stepped up their internationalisation and international recruitment activities in recent years, particularly with respect to recruitment of students from within the region. More broadly, Brazil leads the way among Latin American countries in terms of outbound student mobility with an estimated 35,000 students abroad in 2011, followed by:

  • 32,000 students from Colombia;
  • 29,000 from Mexico;
  • 24,000 from Peru;
  • 19,000 from Venezuela.

Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela are all expected to rank in the world’s top 20 countries for overall higher education enrolment by 2035. Peru, while not a significant international education market historically, is one of the fastest growing economies in the Latin America region. The capital city Lima is the main city of interest for international student recruitment, and while the greatest demand there is for language courses, degrees in engineering, construction and mining are certainly popular. Rounding out the top five Latin markets is Venezuela, whose students often prefer to stay overseas and work abroad after their studies.

Student mobility in Latin America

Turning to Mexico, Latin America’s second largest economy after Brazil, the UK’s ambassador to Mexico, Judith Anne Macgregor says in an edition of the UK Higher Education International Unit's International Focus that the country is:

“The second largest economy in Latin America, it is predicted (according to some analysts) to overtake Brazil in the next 10 years, due to rising competitiveness, low labour costs and new structural reforms (including reforms to labour and education.)”

There are some indications of increasing demand for study abroad in Mexico, following a sharp drop in outbound mobility in 2009 as the effects of the global economic crisis spread to Latin America. The major factors driving outbound student mobility in Mexico are as follows:

  • Access to degree programmes meeting “international standards” is not easy;
  • The higher education sector overall has a poor reputation, because the quality of education and research in the country varies;
  • Recent significant increases in domestic university fees;
  • Mexico has economic, cultural, educational, historical, political, religious and linguistic associations with other countries and regions;
  • The growing Mexican economy is increasingly enabling students to undertake their academic studies in another country;
  • Scholarships have been made available for students to study abroad by the Mexican government.

The higher education institutions of Mexico serve over 2.5 million students, approximately 30% of the university-age population, but the government has ambitions to expand this to 50% by 2020. The current President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto plans to increase the number of Mexican students in US universities from the existing 13,800 to 100,000 by 2018. Furthermore, his plan Proyecta 100,000: Toward a Knowledge Economy, anticipates the number of US students going to study in Mexico rising by 4,100 to 50,000 from 2014 to 2018. The President’s plan is to turn Mexico into the second or third largest source of foreign university students in the US, after China and India. As the Dallas Morning News puts it:

“If Mexico’s study-abroad plan is carried out as planned, it will be among the most ambitious of its kind. Student mobility, especially that of foreign students to US colleges, is considered a key issue in today’s race for competitiveness, because all major world university rankings agree that US universities continue to be by far the best in the world.”
In Colombia

, the number of outbound students still outstrips those coming to study, but the government’s plan to internationalise education aims to raise the international visibility and quality of the country’s higher education system. Encouraging international student and staff mobility as well as the development of joint degree programmes are aspects of this plan. Colombia is one of the largest sending markets in Latin America after Brazil, and the top study destinations for Colombian students are Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.

US universities expanding links with Latin America

In 2013, Mexico and the US entered into partnership, forming a Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research. Both governments will encourage wider access to quality higher education, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The US Department of State stated that educational exchanges will be expanded and best practice shared:

“This forum will build upon the many positive educational and research linkages that already exist through federal, state, and local governments, public and private academic institutions, civil society, and the private sector. It will bring together government agency counterparts to deepen cooperation on higher education, innovation, and research. It will also draw on the expertise of the higher education community in both countries.”

One expression of the goals of the Bilateral Forum will be found in a new Mexican campus that Arkansas State University will open in 2015. Up to 5,000 students will be accommodated in the academic space, with a target of 1,000 during the first year of operation. At the event celebrating this major milestone in February 2014, Queretaro Governor Jose Calzada Rovirosa said:

“This is an example of what we can achieve together, the US and Mexico, when we combine forces regarding the most valuable things we have: our youth, the future, the progress of the nation.”

Latin American student interest in UK and vice versa

Meanwhile, in the UK, a recent report in the Guardian argues that the UK should compete with the US and Europe to recruit more Latin American students. While tighter student visa rules and the crackdown on immigration have been blamed for the reduction in students coming from countries abroad to UK universities, a 2013 newsletter of the UK Higher Education International Unit, projects considerable potential for increased links between British institutions and those in Latin America. The UK Higher Education International Unit cites an advanced manufacturing collaboration between Sheffield University and Mexico’s Tec de Monterrey as well as the University of Edinburgh’s new Latin American Office in São Paulo as examples of this potential for British institutions in the region.

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