The exponential development of technology presents enormous challenges facing HEIs, such as new platform models, immersive learning channels, and digital experiences aimed at students that will generate significant transformations in what has been the teaching-learning process so far.
HEIs can no longer be the entire reservoir of knowledge. To compete successfully, they must streamline their cumbersome bureaucratic processes, seek new teaching formats beyond the traditional degrees (Kat, et al., 2020), and adopt technologies that facilitate their students' training, both disciplinary and attitudinal (Deming, 2017). In line with the above, accreditation agencies must modify their standards and criteria, adapting them to the new reality and ensuring that they are an effective catalyst for the valuable interaction of HEIs with startups and companies.
Higher education was undergoing a worldwide transformation process before the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, a process that was accelerated by the large-scale introduction of technology in learning modalities. It introduced new intermediation platforms, forcing institutions, teachers, and students to acquire new skills to manage the digital world and fully integrate new technologies - such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality – in this field. In part, these technologies increased the effectiveness of the remote learning process and the interaction between the different levels of accurate and digital information.
Based on the previous, higher education must continue to introduce permanent transformations in its management that increase the degrees of flexibility, the development of innovative teaching and learning strategies, and changes in the duration of current career and degree programs.
These transformations imply that HEIs in many countries of the region can no longer function as isolated entities, at most, linked in consortia defined by the condition of being state or private property. In both cases, it is necessary to strengthen the quality assurance mechanisms beyond lyrical statements about their work. As leading members of the ecosystem in which government, industry, entrepreneurs, and investors participate, they must jointly address research-based innovation and create technologies whose results will drive local economic success through rapid and effective marketing (Etkowitz & Zhou, 2018).
One critical aspect is directly related to the quality of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, many universities do not provide a relevant curriculum to develop the skills needed for the future. The quality of the teaching-learning process contemplates the delivery of hard and soft skills such as teamwork, leadership, communication, analysis, and problem-solving and, in general, the construction and appropriation of the concept of citizenship.
The biggest challenge is convincing people to adopt changes. Covid 19 compelled HEIs to rely more heavily on technology to teach and facilitate learning, but did not promote the possibilities of building from technology (Bayetova & Karsakbayeva, 2020). The main obstacle in adopting technology in HEIs is changing mindset management (Birshan et al., 2017).
Quality Assurance (QA)
In Latin America, the entities in charge of quality assurance have expanded in almost all countries in recent decades, leaving only a few without them. Most of these QA entities answer to their local governments and, in some cases, coexist with other private entities. However, the organizational configuration and means of conducting or controlling quality assurance in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) vary.
Thus, when analyzing QA data and results, it is possible to identify different degrees of governmental influence on the HEIs. For example, overt or covert political advocacy in their resolutions or through pressures from the HEIs, and utilizing their representatives in the Commissions or Councils that rule on quality (Pedró i García, F. 2022).
In the last five years, several countries in the region have introduced new laws on Higher Education, which, as far as quality assurance is concerned, generally move from focusing on inputs and processes to outputs and outcomes. Some examples are what has happened to the regulatory bodies of Colombia, Perú, Ecuador, Mexico, and Chile. However, a particular phenomenon from the political point of view is taking place in several Latin American countries, where an exacerbated populism has developed and undoubtedly impacts the independence of decision-making by the entities in charge of quality.
Evidence of the above is what happened recently in Nicaragua. Although its regulatory body still exists, many private universities have been closed and absorbed by the State for reasons unrelated to quality criteria (The LA News, 2022). An equally complex situation occurs in Perú, where a political sector is promoting a counter-reform to the current law on higher education. This process would affect the current quality assurance system and the body responsible for its implementation. There are significant differences in the functioning of quality assurance entities in Latin America. However, it is possible to identify some degree of convergence between them regarding political autonomy (in Ecuador and Chile to a lesser extent).
It is essential to analyze the mechanisms and processes of quality agencies and how they respond to society's current challenges. Likewise, how they are adapting to the technological challenges of the immediate future so as not to lag in development after more than 20 years of implementing quality processes in Latin American universities.
The guarantee of political independence from the government is very relevant for the transparency of the quality system, as well as to ensure that the interests of the HEIs themselves do not prevail in the results of the quality processes, which would affect public faith in a system of great value for students and society.
Instead, the deep critical analysis of the substantive functions of the HEIs (teaching-learning, research, development and innovation, and social responsibility and sustainability) should be privileged, without leaving aside the evaluation of institutional management. In this way, it is possible to address the actual state of the quality of the institutions, reflected in subjective appraisals and objective facts, in a transparent manner that guarantees the consolidation of the systems and their credibility on the part of all the relevant actors.
Even in those countries with new legal frameworks, the standards and criteria to be used by these accreditation agencies do not consider, or only partially consider, those transformations that imply the enormous range of new global models of higher education available worldwide. In these new models, digital technology plays a transcendent role, which will generate large volumes of data derived from the learning of each student and the quality of what they learned at each stage.
Assessing the quality of learning outcomes on an ongoing basis will undoubtedly help improve curriculum design and delivery. This issue is fundamental insofar as during the final phase of COVID 19; accreditation agencies conducted online institutional evaluations that resulted in accreditations that they performed in a modality in which they had relatively little experience (Coates, 2020), so there are doubts about the effects of these evaluations on the reality experienced by students in their learning process in terms of quality (Olivares, 2021). There is much to advance in this area.
In general, accreditation agencies in the Latin American region are not concerned with the degree of effective linkage between the private and public sectors (in terms of concrete innovation results), which is a crucial aspect in this new era of higher education. The levels of effective interaction with other participants in the ecosystem drive innovation, where new ideas are tested and risks are assumed.
Some issues that will strengthen Latin American HEIs in this new stage are:
Bayetova, N., & Karsakbayeva, M. (2020). Covid-19 highlights vulnerabilities in higher education. University World News, 17.
Birshan, M., Meakin, T., & Strovink, K. (2017). What makes a CEO ‘exceptional’. McKinsey Quarterly.
Coates, H. (2020). Emergency learning requires next-generation assessment. University World News.
Deming, D. J. (2017). The growing importance of social skills in the labor market. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132(4), 1593-1640.
Etzkowitz, H., & Zhou, C. (2017). The triple helix: University–industry–government innovation and entrepreneurship. Routledge.
Kato, S., Galán-Muros, V., & Weko, T. (2020). The emergence of alternative credentials.
Olivares, C. (2021). Right moment to strengthen quality assurance mechanisms. University World News.
i García, F. P. (2022). La crisis de maduración de las agencias de garantía de calidad de la educación superior. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación, 88(1), 17-32.
The LA News (2022). Regional science body condemns attack on higher education. University World News.
Cover image: Canva