Creating a Higher Education for the Future

Probably on the minds of all of us is the idea that a crisis can be an opportunity. In Higher Education, this can be especially true as the world is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening structural problems that came from long before. A scenario of disruption as great as the current one can be a great catalyst for the changes necessary for the survival of Higher Education institutions and the system in general.

This is the theme of the webinar presented by Laspau in December 2020, the last of that year, as a preamble to the virtual summit that will take place this 2021. The main presentations were given by Jamil Salmi, international consultant for tertiary education, and María Marta Ferreyra, Senior Economist in the Office of the Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank. The event was moderated by Liz Reisberg, consultant in higher education, and by Angélica Natera, Executive Director of Laspau. It also featured comments from Pablo Landoni, General Director of the Ministry of Education and Culture of Uruguay, and Andrés Bernasconi, professor at the Faculty of Education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Jamil Salmi

Jamil Salmi’s presentation dealt with the present and future of Higher Education in the context of crisis, commenting on a report that is being prepared for the Lumina Foundation.

Some of the highlights of the presentation, available in the video that accompanies these lines, were:

  • The violent transformation that universities are having to manage to maintain their survival and the learning of their students.
  • A vision of how the crisis has tended to enhance inequalities, including differences in accessibility and environments compatible with learning in students’ homes.
  • The effects that stress, isolation and the psychological burden of the pandemic have had on students and teachers.
  • How online education is losing the stigma that could previously weaken it compared to face-to-face programs.
  • The importance of innovation in teaching & learning, including active learning, to ensure effective development in students.
  • The opportunity for reinvention that is presented to Higher Education through the improvement of learning, including tools such as formative evaluations, the recognition of the ineffectiveness of certain lectures, the sharing of common resources between institutions that normally seen each other as competitors (such as libraries and other resources), among others.

The closing question of the presentation is whether this is a “Black Swan” moment or will we return to the same previous reality.

María Marta Ferreyra

In the second presentation, María Marta Ferreyra showed a preview of a study that is being prepared by the World Bank on Short Cycle Programs (SCP), which correspond to curricula of shorter duration, typically 2 or 3 years, oriented to the development of skills that allow students to enter the labor market quickly, and to help meet the growing needs of skilled labor in the region.

Some of the highlights of the presentation were:

  • The crisis may be affecting students’ interest in longer-term programs, as these are seen as a large investment with sometimes uncertain returns, and in the long term. The economic pressure on students and their families leads them to seek shorter solution paths.
  • The SCPs have also been shown to attract the interest of graduates of other programs as a way to improve themselves to face the labor market in better conditions.
  • SCPs have kept fewer students enrolled than traditional programs, in part because of stigmas maintained by families’ aspirations for their children. This has led to these types of programs generally attracting students from more disadvantaged conditions.
  • However, compared to college programs, SCPs have better retention rates, and the expected salary for an SCP graduate is higher than that of a student who dropped out of a college program. This shows how effective they are for obtaining employment.
  • The SCPs are accompanied by curricular improvement initiatives such as the creation of more modular systems with a focus on lifelong learning.

A crisis scenario such as the current one can, as in the case of distance education, remove the stigma of SCPs and show their suitability to meet market needs and help reduce unemployment levels.

About the presenters

María Marta Ferreyra is a Senior Economist in the Office of the Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank. Her research agenda has focused on the economics of education. In particular, María Marta has studied in depth the higher education systems of Latin America, and the primary and secondary education systems of the United States. She has also studied urban economics and early childhood care issues. Her research has been published in the American Economic Review and the Journal of Public Economics, among other journals. María Marta obtained her doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin (Madison, United States). Before joining the World Bank, she was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Business.

Jamil Salmi is an international expert in the development of higher education systems and in the transformation of universities. He currently works as an independent consultant for governments, cooperation agencies, and universities, after having served for many years as coordinator of the World Bank’s higher education programs. He is the lead author of the latest World Bank policy document on higher education: Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education (2003). His book, The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities was published in September 2011. His previous book, The Challenge of Establishing World-Ranking Universities, was published in February 2009. In 2017 he wrote at the request of the United Nations a book on the role of higher education in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Over the past 25 years, Dr. Salmi has provided technical advice on higher education reform and development in more than 100 countries throughout the world. Dr. Salmi is a member of the international advisory board of various universities in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. He is an emeritus professor of higher education policy at the Diego Portales University in Chile and an associate researcher at the International Center for Higher Education at Boston College in the USA.


Andrés Bernasconi is a tenured professor at the Faculty of Education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and Director of its Center for Advanced Studies on Educational Justice.

Pablo Landoni, General Director of the Ministry of Education and Culture of Uruguay.

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