AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO

Nobel prize week can prompt uncomfortable soul-searching at universities in Latin America, which has produced relatively few winners in the sciences - a symptom, experts say, of the region’s struggles in higher education.

Latin America’s universities are often overcrowded, underfunded institutions where most professors do not have doctoral degrees and many students end up dropping out. After increasing investment in higher education over the past two decades, the region has more than doubled enrollment and increased its production of scientific papers more than six-fold, to 4.3 percent of world output.

‘But the bad news is that the quantity has not necessarily been accompanied by quality,’ said Jorge Balan, an Argentine sociologist and higher education specialist at Columbia University in New York. ‘We have more scientists than in the past, more full-time university faculty, faculty which is better prepared, and their production has increased. But the quality of research is not as good in international terms.’ Latin America’s universities are largely absent from world rankings, and those that do make the cut come in far from the top. In the most recent Times Higher Education rankings, no Latin American university made the top 200. The best ranked, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, made the top 225 but came in behind institutions in other emerging markets like Russia, South Africa and Turkey. And few Latin American researchers have gained international recognition at the highest levels.

Latin Americans have won the Nobel peace and literature prizes 14 times, but just seven times in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine and economics - a drought that has continued at this year’s Nobels, which wrap up Monday with the awarding of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

The brain drain also remains a problem for universities, with much of the best talent moving to Europe and the United States. Across the region, fewer than one in 10 university professors has a PhD.

‘In most of Latin America the academic profession is not a full-time profession.

Most of these folks are part-timers who get paid very little and who have other jobs to be able to make a living,’ said Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. ‘You can’t build a top-flight university on the basis of part-time faculty. That’s kind of an iron law. You can’t get around that.’