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Brazil Dominates Latin American University Rankings

Brazil Dominates Latin American University Rankings main image

As Brazil continues to dominate the QS University Rankings: Latin America, TopUniversities.com takes a closer look at the region’s high-performing universities.

University rankings have sometimes been criticized for their volatility, with some observers complaining that seismic year-on-year shifts reflect methodological tinkering or unreliable measures, rather than genuine change.

The familiar look of the top ten in 2012 QS University Rankings: Latin America is therefore strong evidence that last year’s inaugural exercise provided a fair and accurate overview of the current hierarchy of the region’s universities.

Universidade de São Paulo (USP) cements its place at the top of the table, while the entire top seven is unchanged, a near-unprecedented level of stability in a ranking of this nature.

However there were some variations in the top ten, with Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro, Universidad de Concepción and Universidad de Santiago de Chile entering at the expense of Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais.

Chile now claims four of the top ten, ahead of Brazil with three, Mexico with two and Colombia with one. Argentina’s sole representative from last year, University of Buenos Aires, drops three places to 11th.

Brazilian dominance continues

The strong position of Brazil in the QS rankings established in 2011 shows little sign of diminishing. USP retains the top spot, and with 65 of the top 250, Brazil accounts for over a quarter of the universities in this ranking.

Even taking its size into consideration, on a regional level this suggests an impressive level of dominance.

The performance of Brazilian universities is partly attributable to a national effort to increase access to higher education – with enrolment having tripled in the last decade - and to policies aimed at enhancing the quality and quantity of its research.

A study of the US National Science Foundation found that Brazil tripled its scientific research output between 1993 and 2003, and it has carried on growing since.

In 2008 Brazil spent US$22 billion on research, compared to Mexico, Argentina and Chile’s figures of US$5.8 billion, US$2.7 billion and US$1.2 billion respectively.

UNESCO statistics place Brazil among the world's top 15 R&D performers. This investment is reflected in the research measures, sourced from Scopus, which show that Brazil is producing a far greater quantity of published research than its regional peers.

Brazil has a remarkable nine of the top ten universities in Latin America for research papers per faculty member, plus the top nine universities for the proportion of academics with a PhD.

These results back up the OECD figures published in September 2011, which showed that the proportion of GDP invested in education, grew more in Brazil than in any other OECD nation from 2000-2008.

Although Brazil still has plenty of work to do before it can achieve its long-term goal of a genuinely world-class higher education system, the confirmation of its regional dominance provided by this year’s rankings points to encouraging progress.

Mexico building a strong reputation

However, if Brazil is the dominant nation in terms of the volume of published research it produces, when it comes to the perception of the region’s academics and employers it is Mexico that comes out on top.

UNAM is the number one institution for the second year running in the QS Academic Reputation Survey, in which academics throughout Latin America identify the universities that are currently leading the way in research within their field of expertise. And in the increasingly key area of employability, Tecnológico de Monterrey(ITESM) can point to an unsurpassed reputation among graduate employers.

It tops the employer reputation survey, in which employers from across Latin America name the institutions that they regard as providing the best graduates

UNAM makes the top three in both surveys, but the fact that ITESM is so much more popular among employers than academics – ranking number one among the former and outside the top ten among the latter – is evidence of a successful focus on skills-based education.

With Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN) and InstitutoTecnológicoAutonomo de México (ITAM) also making the top 20, the healthy reputation of the nation’s universities among employers throughout the region will be good news to Mexican students.

Chile improves performance despite tuition fees chaos

While Brazil has unmatched strength in depth, perhaps the most eye-catching progress has been made by Chile, which now claims four of the top ten spots, more than any other nation.

Just months after spiraling tuition fees prompted student riots in Santiago, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (2) and Universidad de Chile (4) are joined in this year’s top ten by Universidad de Concepción (9) and Universidad de Santiago de Chile (10).

Whereas accessibility clearly remains a major issue, in terms of research performance Chile’s universities are among the best in the continent.

Three Chilean universities make the top 15 for papers per faculty, led by Universidad de Chile in 6th - the only country to break the Brazilian whitewash in this indicator.

Pontifica also makes the top 10 for citations per paper, with Pontifica and Universidade de Chile making the top 20 for both citations per paper and papers per faculty, a feat matched by only one other university (UNIFESP).

Therefore, in terms of research quantity combined with impact, they can lay a credible claim to be Latin America’s foremost research institutions.

As this year’s events show, research performance is only one aspect of a complex situation for Chilean universities, and these rankings also point to significant areas for improvement.

There is no Chilean university in the top 50 for faculty/student ratio, and none in the top 30 for staff with a PhD.

With Chilean students paying more than most for their education, this indicates that for all their research strength, there is plenty of work to be done when it comes to providing a first-class learning environment.

Argentina struggling to keep with the pace

If Chile’s heavily privatized universities have been helped up the table by the manner in which they have prioritized research, this year’s rankings suggest Argentina’s heavily state-subsidized university system has struggled to keep up with the pace of change elsewhere in the continent.

Universidad de Buenos Aires has dropped out of the top ten, while all of the leading ten Argentinean universities rank lower than last year.

Just two universities make the top 20, compared to five last year, and five of the nation’s universities drop out of the top 50.

While Argentina’s university system is admirably inclusive, the challenge it now faces is to keep pace with the development of leading universities in Brazil, Mexico and Chile.

Rising student/faculty ratios and a general decrease in reputation among employers and academics account for a general downward trend this year.

Colombia third strongest

The third largest economy in Latin America by GDP, Colombia is also the third best-represented country in this year’s rankings, with 34 universities in the top 250 placing it behind Brazil (65) and Mexico (46), and ahead of Chile (30) and Argentina (26).

14 Colombian universities entered the rankings this year, mostly because they have been extended to include the top 250 rather than 200.

Colombian universities perform particularly well in the reputation-based indicators, and a general upward trend in employer reputation is an encouraging indication both of the skill-levels of Colombian graduates and the growing international profile of the nation’s institutions.

However, Colombian universities still suffer from high student/faculty ratios and a relative lack of widely cited research.

Although the five countries discussed above, account for 201 of the total 250 universities, the ranking also shines a light on pockets of development throughout the region.

Venezuela and Peru still significantly underperform relative to the size of their GDP, but their leading institutions Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (31) and Universidad Central de Venezuela (33) both improved their performance.

A total of 19 countries are included, five more than last year, with Dominican Republic, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua represented for the first time.

Even with the reassuring stability at the top of the table, this year’s rankings still show that Latin America is an evolving and dynamic region of great potential.

Universities in top 250 by country: Brazil (65), Mexico (46), Colombia (34), Chile (30), Argentina (26), Peru (10), Ecuador (6), Venezuela (6), Cuba (5), Uruguay (4), Costa Rica (3), Dominican Republic (3), Paraguay (3), Bolivia (2), El Salvador (2), Panama (2), Guatemala (1) Nicaragua (1), Puerto Rico (1).

QS Staff Writer's profile image
Written by QS Staff Writer

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