Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: Argentina’s Long-Suffering Universities

Reading Time: 9 minutesA Fulbright Scholar discovers the pathologies and injustices of a higher education system once considered the “jewel of the Americas.”
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Saved by the bell: Pablo Ramos, Carolina Sanchez and Melisa Coria with the author, Matthew Sundquist (left to right). Photo courtesy of Matthew Sundquist.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The story goes that Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was born under a tree in San Juan, a province in western Argentina. I passed that tree every day on my way to teach at the Faculty of Philosophy, Humanities and Arts at the Universidad Nacional de San Juan (UNSJ), as a newly minted Fulbright Scholar in early 2010. I couldn’t help thinking that I was also following the path that Sarmiento took in 1869, when he brought 65 English teachers to Argentina from Boston.

An early advocate of universal education, Sarmiento helped establish Argentina’s national education system when he was minister of religion, justice and public instruction. Later, as governor of San Juan, Sarmiento passed laws mandating primary education and lobbied for tuition-free public primary schools. Then, as president (1868–1874), he established 800 schools and oversaw a quadrupling of educational funding to provinces.

Thanks in many ways to his efforts, Argentine literacy rose from 33 percent in 1869 to 50 percent by the turn of the century.1 And Argentina, among the richest countries in the world at the time, was believed to have the best public school system and lowest illiteracy rate in Latin America.

But Argentina’s education system, in particular its universities, has been slipping ever since. Distorted incentives and problematic policies seriously obstruct quality education.

My year in San Juan gave me a front-row seat. Over the course of the school year, I taught English, history, philosophy, and cultural studies, in classes ranging from four to 40 students. Most public university students in Argentina come from privileged backgrounds: nationally, nearly 90 percent of them are from families with higher-than-median per-capita incomes, and 50 percent attended private, tuition-financed high schools.

One of my first discoveries was that, despite this privileged environment, students do not take full advantage of it. Many used their cell phones during class and walked in and out of lectures at will.

As one of my students, Pablo Ramos, wryly observed, “The system is not something that encourages you to sit down, study and finish everything in a timely manner.”

And that was also reflected in the faculty’s attitude. Many of my fellow teachers held multiple jobs—sometimes in other professions—and had little time or incentive to conduct serious research. Students’ homework often went ungraded.

This was hardly what Sarmiento had in mind when he envisioned a national university system.

Over the course of my Fulbright year, I was able to pinpoint some of the reasons for this state of affairs. A good part of it stems from Argentina’s recent troubled history.

A Volatile History

Argentina’s education problems date back to the 1930s, when the first of various military coups instated a series of governments that each refashioned the education system to serve its own ideology. It was not until 1983, when newly elected President Raúl Alfonsín returned the country to constitutional government, that things began to change.

Alfonsín eliminated quotas, admissions exams and fees, and introduced a system that broadened access to higher education. Young Argentines today complete a mandatory 13 years of primary and secondary school, after which they can choose between attending a terciario—akin to a community college or certificate program in the U.S.—after an additional three years of secondary education, or attending one of 39 tuition-free, government-funded national universities or 46 fee-charging private and religious universities.

But the success of these reforms only underscored the systemic educational problems Argentina continues to face. The failure to address them has created a public university system that, despite appearances, is short-changing both students and faculty.

UNSJ is a typical example. With a student body of about 6,600 across its five facultades, or schools, when I first stepped on the campus it looked modern and thriving, with students eager to learn. The rustic-looking Philosophy, Humanities and Arts building, where I had my office, is three stories tall. In addition to housing the offices of 10 academic departments, it has a photocopy room, a library, a small café, a video room, an office for the student government, and about 25 classrooms. Classes for all 10 departments are held there and are ongoing throughout the day.

But appearances were deceiving. A key problem at San Juan—and for that matter, all the higher educational institutions in Argentina’s university system—is that professors are overworked and underpaid.

In UNSJ’s English language and literature department, where I taught, 35 professors teach 38 subjects. Two professors are assigned to each class and teach on alternating days, meaning that they teach and earn half of what they could with a full-time schedule. Professors are employed for 10, 20 or 40 hours a week. But since their positions offer little security and low pay, they must supplement their income however they can.

For example, Myriam Arrabal, the director of the English department, not only teaches at the UNSJ and manages the department, she also teaches three classes in a teacher-training terciario, two classes in a librarian-training terciario and three adult English classes. She is paid by the university to teach 12 hours, research for 20 hours and work eight hours as departmental director. But in reality, she estimates that she works about 20 hours as departmental director and splits another 20 hours between teaching and researching.  Annually, Arrabal teaches about 180 students.

Base salaries for professors in the UNSJ with 24 years of experience are, on average, 120 percent higher than for starting teachers, who therefore generally work at multiple teaching sites. In one extreme case, a geography professor teaches at 13 schools.

Another example: Carolina Sanchez, a recent graduate who was hired to teach at the UNSJ, taught in both a primary and a secondary school as well as a private, preuniversity institute. In addition, she tutored 13 students individually, traveling to their houses to conduct classes. Combined, she taught 122 students. Her monthly income for 31 hours of weekly work—nearly 4,000 pesos ($1,000)—allowed her the rare opportunity (for a young Argentine) of buying a car. Even rarer, she does not have to live with her family since she earns enough to pay rent.

Taxi Teachers

But Sanchez’ life as a teacher constantly on the move is not exceptional. In fact, there is even an informal term for it—“taxi teachers”—and the effect on the quality of education they provide is hard to ignore.

“Coming and going all the time is exhausting, and you lose track of what you´re doing and whom you´re actually teaching,” Alejandra Díaz, a high-school teacher who works as an assistant in the UNSJ explained to me. “The profession has lost credibility.”

That problem of reduced quality is even more pronounced when it comes to research. The Faculty of Philosophy, Humanities and Arts at the UNSJ employs 614 professors, 263 of whom are teachers who do not conduct research.

To begin a research project, professors form groups of four to six and petition the university secretary for approval during a 25-day yearly window. Each professor holds a ranking of one to five, based on their level of scholarship. Teachers with higher rankings can apply to be a leader or coordinator of a team. Teams often last for years, but may produce little more than a university report.

The combination of income and institutional pressure—and the resulting skepticism—has led to deterioration in the quality of research, according to Professor Marisel Bollati, who teaches not only in the city’s Catholic University and UNSJ, but also at a mining company.

“Universities want production [but] there is no evidence that the results really matter or are ever read,” Bollati told me.

Sanchez agrees, but she pointed out that the lack of emphasis on critical thinking and independent research starts early. Even in the initial levels of schooling, she said, “there is no emphasis on critical thinking, and students simply repeat what they find in books.”

In one example Sanchez decided to fail 10 of her students because they had copied and pasted Internet sources in a writing assignment. But the principal told her not to “bother” contacting their parents or requiring rewritten papers. The students, explained the principal, were “not mature enough” to understand that this was not right. Worse, she forbade Sanchez from disciplining her students, raising the question of when students should be expected to work independently, not to mention honestly.

The lack of research incentives, combined with low salaries, job insecurity and difficult working conditions, can lead to frequent labor unrest. Yet unions have failed to take a leading role in improving the system. On the contrary, studies have shown that job dissatisfaction has increased along with the frequency of strikes.2

Under these circumstances, it’s remarkable and admirable that anyone would willingly choose to teach.

The tragedy is that it would not take huge changes to make things   better. My colleagues at San Juan are eager for change. Arrabal, the English department director, told me she would “love to be a full-time employee of the university,” which would not only give her more job and salary security, but would give her time to research and focus on one teaching site—instead of four.

Challenges for Students

The payoff for such changes would be huge. Just one year of additional university-level education corresponds to an 11 percent increase in salary, with the highest returns for a complete university education.3

But Argentina’s high dropout rates and the fact that even students who do graduate work take, on average, 60 percent longer to complete their studies than they should, means that many students reap these financial benefits late, if at all.4

UNSJ mirrors these disheartening statistics. In 2009, there were just 587 students in the graduating class. That was out of an initial registration of 6,595 students and 3,865 enrolled. The graduates, on average, took 1.6 times longer to complete their studies. Five- or seven-year majors can stretch to eight or ten years—trends which have held for the past 10 years.

Carlos Borcosque, head of the Census and Statistics Office at the UNSJ, offered me a possible explanation. Enrolled students under the age of 25 can stay on their parents´ insurance plans, play in the university soccer league, and join the university sports and recreational club.

Since school and registration are free, students may annually re-enroll or switch to another major, intending to reap these benefits while not attending classes.

The system also places a disproportionate weight on exam results, instead of ongoing learning. In some cases, exams count for all or nearly all of a student’s grade. Students have five chances over two years to take exams, and they schedule and take exams individually.

Melisa Coria, a student of mine in her third year, has taken 22 classes but finished exams for only 17. Her pace is considered good; some students who have finished their classes altogether still need to take up to 10 exams. Obviously, this puts them at a huge disadvantage, says Coria, “because [when] students have the chance to take final exams two years after finishing a class, they tend to forget information.”

Many students, even at the university level, have never written a research or analytical essay, used a citation or worked with teachers to improve their writing.

My conversations with other Fulbright Scholars teaching throughout Argentina indicated that this is a widespread educational shortcoming. Professors, who infrequently earn a master’s degree or PhD, have limited university writing experience, and so may assign short oral presentations as exams rather than more substantive writing, research or analysis.

A different framework could encourage students to complete classes, further apply themselves, and graduate. And the students themselves would welcome the change. Melisa Coria, for example, would like to see exams at the end of each class, rather than waiting two years. Pablo Ramos believes that “having a set [exam] schedule would give me something to work for.”

The Tuition Debate

Argentines are aware of the system’s failings. Some are now focusing on whether the state should reimpose tuition fees at public universities. Opponents argue that doing so would add little to education revenues and might even be used to justify federal budget cuts. More significant, they maintain that free education ensures social mobility.

Argentine surgeon Dr. René Favaloro popularized the use of the phrase “M’hijo el dotor” (“My son the doctor”) in describing the importance of tuition-free education, pronouncing “doctor” without the “ct” in an accent most often heard in rural areas—the implication being that anyone can advance through education, regardless of background.

On the other hand, advocates of tuition say that the current system subsidizes middle- and upper-income students. They note that contributing financially would motivate students to work and discourage welfare enrollment.

I find the latter arguments more convincing. But I am in the minority.

Despite free tuition, by the time many Argentines reach university age, the poorest of them are already well off the track for higher education. In Argentina, one of five students from the bottom income quintile does not complete primary school. By ninth grade, roughly half of poor students drop out. Thus, only 25 percent of poorer students graduate from secondary school, and fewer from college. In contrast, 80 percent of wealthy students finish ninth grade, and 75 percent complete secondary school.5

So who really benefits from the current system?

Most public university students come from families with above-average incomes and have attended good private high schools. Because the school day is generally only five hours, many wealthier students pay for extra instruction from individual teachers or at an institute. By the time poorer students finish high school, if they do, they may already be substantially behind in knowledge, learning skills and attention spans in comparison to their wealthier classmates.

While everyone pays taxes to fund the university system, many potential students who can not afford to pay tuition fees do not attend university. Many who can pay attend for free.

According to a recent article in the review journal Economics of Education, there is an “implicit transfer to the richest individuals in the society.”6 Even worse, it merely “reproduces and preserves social differences.”7

Scholarships for needy students could offset tuition. Successful programs already exist, such as a 1993 program aimed at schools serving underprivileged children, or a 1997 program that raised enrollment among the poor by distributing targeted scholarships of 600 pesos ($150) per year to 60,000 of the poorest secondary school students.8

As my year progressed, I gained a special appreciation of the lifestyle of provincial Argentine cities like San Juan. Everyone I met was hospitable, patient with my awful Spanish and caring. The community is less materialistic and competition-driven than in the United States. Getting ahead is not pursued with the same gusto as in the U.S., nor is it perceived as a supreme value. My friends in San Juan loved their asado, mate, fernet, and empanadas, and are wild about their soccer team.

By the end of the year, the easygoing lifestyle of San Juan managed to soften my own North American attitudes toward success and our hard-driving academic lifestyle.

But my year also made me aware of how much Argentina’s future potential was being lost under an educational system that badly needs improvement. Teaching at the UNSJ showed me that, if presented with useful and interesting information, students will be enthusiastic, and if pushed to learn, they will excel. Changing the system to accommodate both student and faculty needs, and finding a way to broaden access would help make Sarmiento’s original vision a contemporary reality.

Somehow, I believe that if Sarmiento were alive today, he’d be the first to agree.



1.   Ariel Fiszbein, Paula Ines Giovagnoli , Estimating the Returns to Education in Argentina: 1992-2002, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 3715, 2005.
2.   Peter Kuhn and Gustavo Márquez, What Difference Do Unions Make? Their Impact on Productivity and Wages in Latin America (2005).
3.   Fiszbein and Giovagnoli.
4.   Hans de Wit, et al., Higher education in Latin America: the international dimension (2005),
5.   Herrán & Bart Van Uythe
6.   Gonzalez Rozada, Martin & Menendez, Alicia, “Public university in Argentina: subsidizing the rich?,” Economics of Education Review, pp. 341-351, at 341 (2002).
7.   Paul Bélanger, Ettore Gelpi, Lifelong education, at 196 (1995).
8.   Jorge Balan, Governance and finance of national universities in Argentina: current proposals for change, Higher Education 25, pp. 45-59 (1993).

Tags: Argentina, Education
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