Di Tella en los medios
The World of Higher Education

Javier Milei and Argentinian Higher Education

Marcelo Rabossi, profesor de las Especializaciones y Maestrías en Educación, fue entrevistado para el podcast "The World of Higher Education" sobre la educación superior en la Argentina.

Alex Usher (AU): Hello everyone. I'm Alex Usher, and this is the world of higher education podcast.

One of the most striking global political stories of 2023 was the presidential election in Argentina, where a relative newcomer, Javier Milei, with a mixed set of right wing and libertarian views, was elected to the presidency with a relatively large margin in the second round of voting on the 19th of November.

At one level, the defeat of the ruling Peronist Party was not surprising, given the country's general state of economic malaise and inflation running at well over 100 percent annually. And yet at the same time, Milei certainly looks like a big change for the country. Milei's plan for economic recovery involves a lot of deregulatory shock therapy, perhaps as strong as any such plan anywhere since the Asian crisis of the late 1990s. But in addition to this, Milei promised a bonfire of government ministries, including the ministries of culture, health, labor, and education. He's also amused with cutting subsidies entirely to the school and university systems and replacing them with some kind of voucher system.

Unlike most of the continent, Argentina's higher education system is pretty much all public and free. The effect that such a move would have on Argentina's universities is difficult to imagine. It's not an exaggeration to say that how things play out in the country over the next 12 months could be one of the biggest stories in world higher education in 2024. The question is, does Milei actually mean to go through with all this? Or is it just all loose anarcho capitalist banter?

With me today is Marcelo Rabossi, a professor of higher education policy and management at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. Over the course of this conversation, he guides us through the ins and outs of the country's public and private university systems, provides insight into previous attempts to introduce tuition fees in the system, and reflects on the deep conservatism in the sense of resistance to change that exists within Argentina's universities.

Partly as a result of this, Marcelo is somewhat skeptical that having Milei's reforms will work out as intended. But as he says towards the end of the interview, the underlying economic crisis in the country is at least as big a threat to the economic livelihood of universities and researchers as Milei's plans. And that in the end, the president's educational legacy might rest to a considerable extent on the degree to which his macroeconomic reforms end up providing a healthy and stable economy that can support a thriving higher education system.

But enough from me. Let's hear from Marcelo.

Alex Usher: Marcelo, we've had a number of guests join us from Latin America to discuss their national systems over the past year. Before we get into anything about Javier Milei tell us about the higher education system in Argentina. How does it compare to other systems in the region like Brazil or Colombia or Mexico? What's different? What's better and what's worse?

Marcelo Rabossi: Alex, the first thing to have in mind is that Argentina in comparison to other systems in the region, Latin America in particular, is that it's a free system and there's no entry examination. That means that we have a very huge public system in comparison to the private system. In general, in Latin America, 50% of all students go to the private system, not in Argentina. In Argentina, the relation between public and private institution is 80 percent of students go to public ones. There are 132 universities. 67 of them are public. They are mainly national institutions, meaning they are financed by the federal government. We have only 6 provincial institutions which the main source of fundings is the province itself. The private sector in relation to, for example, the case of Brazil, the profit is banned by law. There are no profit institutions and that was from the very beginning. So, Argentina was a country where private institutions are more tolerated that encouraged. Those are the main differences between what is Argentina. That is prone to the development of the public sector in relation to the public the private sector. There's a culture of the state to be the main provider of higher education. People trust in the state more than the in private initiatives.

Alex Usher: That must make the role of private education quite different. In Chile and in Brazil, people go to private universities because they can't get into public universities. In Argentina, its free and public spots are plentiful. So why do people go to private universities in Argentina? What's the attraction?

Marcelo Rabossi: That's right. The public sector has something particular. Of course, we are speaking of the elite of the public sector because there are a lot of new public institution where the quality has been put into questions. But if we ask about, for example, the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) or Universidad Nacional de La Plata or Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, people go to the private sector mainly because of political matters. They have the idea that the private sector gives better answers and better response to the demands of the market. For example, there are no strikes. They know that if they go to the university, it is open. That is the main reason, because as you say, it is irrational to have a good product that is free and to pay for another. But I think that the main reason is that its less conflicted in political terms. And of course, they react more rapidly to the demands of the market.

Alex Usher: You mentioned Universidad Buenos Aires, now that's a really unique institution, right? It's either the largest or the second largest institution in the Americas. It's very close to the size of UNAM so 300,000-400,000 students. Why did this institution get so big? What's its influence within the country's overall academic system?

Marcelo Rabossi: As you say, Alex, University of Buenos Aires has around, and I’m rounding because nobody knows exactly the number, but around 300,000 students that make it may be the largest university in Latin America together with the UNAM, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The sense of UBA as we call it here in Argentina can be explained by four main factors. First, as I said before, it has prestige. The second one is because it charges no tuition. The third one is because it has no entry examination. Maybe the fourth is because it is in a very populated area in the capital city of Buenos Aires. To give you an idea, the capital city of Buenos Aires, if we add the neighbors that surround the capital city there are around 13 million people. So that is one of the main reasons. On the other hand, I would say, that the influence of the UBA in the system is real. It was the second university or the first one that was created after the colonial times, after the wars of independence, that was 1821. My impression is that nowadays UBA is not what it used to be, although still influential. Mainly when it comes to the areas of natural and exact science. There's a great competition. UBA in comparison to the private sector in social sciences doesn’t really matter, but if you want to study exactly natural science, you have to go to UBA. The opening of new public institution, mainly on the outskirts of Buenos Aires during the nineties, and then some good research in private institution, although small, made an impact. For me now, there's not such a thing as UBA or nothing.

Alex Usher: There's real competition now. Now you just mentioned the role of research and I would say in general in Latin America compared to North America, the focus of universities is not as research focused, right? The focus is more on teaching. So, what's the state of academic science in Argentina? Who are the stars? What are the bright spots? What does Argentina do well in, in academic science?

Marcelo Rabossi: Historically, Argentina has invested very little in research and development. But this is aligned to what happened in the rest of Latin America, except for Brazil. Much of the research is done outside the university. There are organizations such as INTA is the National Agricultural Technology Institute with some connections with the universities. In general, the star of the system, if we speak about research is medicine. Our contribution to medicine is important. This is a tradition that come from the mid-fifties and I find no big differences between the public sector and private sector in terms of research in the field of medicine. Of course, another important area in question of research is agricultural sciences. Argentina is a big, huge player in the market of natural food. In the private sector, general research that is related to the social sciences, where there is no need for a big and costly infrastructure or much money to do that. Institutions rely on public money for doing research. Around 90-95% of the research is done in public universities with federal funds and the private sector has little access to that kind of funds. So, it is natural that they concentrated on research in areas that are not so costly, so to speak.

Alex Usher: Marcelo, what can you tell me about the politics of higher education in Argentina? You referenced it a little bit earlier when you were talking about students deciding to go to a private university as something of a political decision. Until this year, for the last 20 years, since the financial collapse in 2002, Argentina has been led either by a mostly leftist Peronist party. I know Peronism is not always a left movement. Led mostly by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and generally rightist Juntos por el Cambio, led by Mauricio Macri, former president of Boca Juniors, which makes me very happy. What, if any differences did these parties have with respect to higher education or does it not really matter who's been in government? It's been the same policy no matter what.

Marcelo Rabossi: In part, you are answering the question with what you say at the end of your question. But let me put things in a historical perspective to try to explain more accurately what I would say. In Argentina, there was historically dominance from the public sector. One of the main events explained the dynamics that takes place in the expansion of higher education in Argentina was the Cordova reform. What was the Cordova reform? It advocated for autonomy of institutions. And that is very important. The question of autonomy and self-serve governance. It was not a governmentally initiated reform, but a reaction by a part of society, mostly students and the middle class who were against government and religious control over the university. So the word autonomy is very important because a lot of pressure that universities receive from governments are very difficult to transfer that into real measures. For example, during the reform in 1995, when the neoliberal presidency of Menem tried to pass a law where universities were able to charge tuition if so decided. Practically no university put into that into practice, only two or three, because of cultural and historical reasons. So, I would say that the difference that you can find between the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Macri, although in the papers is big and huge; in fact, it's not so different, because universities are reacting entities to that.

Alex Usher: Over the past couple of years, though, there's a new political movement, right? Which is a third force, sometimes called an extreme right force, sometimes called libertarian, known as La Libertad Avanza which upended this political duopoly. It chose Javier Milei as their presidential candidate, and he swept to victory in an election in November 2023. What can you tell us about Milei, his party, and how they won such a sweeping presidential victory?

Marcelo Rabossi: You're right, Milei is the new president. Milei has not been a politician in the formal meaning of the word, but rather an outsider who became part of the political scene in the last three years. In this sense Milei has no political history. He was elected as president for one main reason: the people were upset with traditional politicians and the promises of the traditional politicians that never turn into reality. To give you an idea of the problem of Argentina: we are ending 2023 with 200 percent increase in prices. Inflation is tremendous. Poverty rates reach 45 percent of the population, and that is unbearable for a country that was during the beginning of the 20th century, one of the richest in the world. Of course, I'm speaking about economic growth, but not economic development because they are different things. In the case of Milei now, his main concentration during these weeks, at least since he took office, is to put forward a plan to try to get rid of inflation. So, are no main ideas about what he will do about education. His main concentration is in economics. And that is what people are asking for, because the economic situation is really bad and it's hurting a lot of people.

Alex Usher: My question though is that he has made statements on the campaign trail about getting rid of a lot of ministries. I believe the Ministry of Education was one of them. I think he's made comments, I don't know how serious, about reducing subsidies to education and making public universities stand on their own two feet, so to speak. What has he actually said? What do people expect from him? We’ll leave the inflation stuff aside for a second, do people expect of a Milei government in education?

Marcelo Rabossi: Since he arrived to power, Milei has moderated his discourse. That is the point. We don't have a very accurate information about what his real intentions are. On education, and even less in relation to higher education. Some statement that he made before being elected president was, for example, to privatize public education. That means for higher education, charging of tuition fees to students. That is what he consider a fair policy, because as he said, universities are overused by high income students in relation to the neediest part of society. But then, he said that he will not put this into practice in the short run. Having said this, I'm not sure if he will have enough room to do this because of what I said in before: there are cultural reasons that are very rigid barriers to trespass and put into practice such a thing.

Alex Usher: One factor here that I expect matters is that the president, as I understand it, does not necessarily have direct power over funding for things like higher education. He would have to make deals with the Chamber of Deputies, and he does not have a majority there. Is that right? So, he's going to have to cut deals.

Marcelo Rabossi: Exactly. He has to cut deals. But even people that are aligned in economic terms with what he proposes are not aligned in terms of education, even liberals. Here in education, historically liberal presidents are liberals matching the way that Milei understand liberty or the freedom to act as people were still very supported of public education. In that case, he will face heart resistance even from people that are aligned in questions of economic and politics. But in education here in Argentina, even liberals are pretty conservative. He will face resistance about education and try to privatize it.

He also designated in the secretary of education (formerly the ministry because he reformed the cabinet) to be Carlos Torrendel. For example, he’s against vouchers. In education, and one of the of the points that Milei made during campaign was to finance the demand through vouchers. But he chooses as the Secretary of Education, one person that is against vouchers. So, it's a kind of mess.

Alex Usher: So even if we expect his more radical proposals to be toned down, it still seems to me that Argentina's universities are in for a bit of a hard time, right? As you said earlier, inflation's running over a hundred percent right now. And in the first week he was in office, devalued the Argentinian the peso by more than 50%. How's that going to affect universities? And this isn't the first time you've gone through this, right? It's only 20 years since you went through a similar kind of middle class destroying economic crisis. What were the impacts of that last crisis on higher education? And how do you think this one might compare?

Marcelo Rabossi: Exactly. Things are pretty similar to what happened during 2002, where there was a devaluation of the peso. I think that this will have a direct impact in the finance of universities. In general, universities get public money, and that public money explains around 90% of what they get depends on the university. But on, on average, 90% of their money come from public sources. So, we are expecting a cut down. The other question that is problematic, too, is money for research and development. Argentina spent around 0.6% of GDP on R&D. That is a very low percentage in relation to industrialized country that spend 2% or 3% of GPD which is much bigger than from Argentina. That will be have an impact to. In general, what I see is that universities are very preoccupied because of this. Cutting money in education will be not only problematic, but I would say also a big mistake because there are a lot of bureaucracy where you have ample room to cut down spendings, but education, I think that it will be suffering a lot, at least during 2024.

Alex Usher: I'm thinking about with the possibility of a brain drain. Argentina's problems are not on the same magnitude as Venezuela's. But, when we had Juan Carlos Navarro on our show a while ago, certainly that was a preoccupation of when you've had large bouts of inflation, you tend to see an outflow of talented people like professors. Is that likely, do you think?

Marcelo Rabossi: That's a possibility. Salaries in Argentina are not competitive at all, especially after the devaluation of the Peso. To give you an idea, and this is real, I'll tell you the truth. A good salary for a full-time professor with some kind of seniority is around in annual terms is no more than 20,000 US dollars or maybe $15,000 a year. If you go to Chile or if you go to Brazil, you don't need to go either to Canada or U. S. to get much more money. If you go to the surrounding country, the neighboring countries, you can get three or four times you get here in Argentina.

Alex Usher: $20,000 doesn't get you a good apartment in Palermo. Javier Milei's term of office runs through to the end of 2027. If we have you back on the show in four years’ time, what's, do you think the worst-case scenario is for higher education in Argentina? And also, what's the best case scenario?

Marcelo Rabossi: In economic and social terms, because this is very important, no? The worst scenario would be that inflation continues at very high rates and this means for the countries if inflation goes more than 20 or 30 percent a year. Have in mind that this December we have around 20 percent of inflation only in December and we are expecting between 20 and 30 percent in January. If poverty increases, that would be devastating and very risky for Milei. As a consequence, if the economy falls, it will fall into a dark hole, as I say. For higher education and the research system, it would be problematic, if fiscal equilibrium, that Milei is wanting to reach, is reached by reducing public spendings in both areas of education and research and development. Milei should generate a mean to try to avoid this for the public sector. For the private sector, there's a lot of private money is not in the formal circuit of the economy is in is not in the in the banks. People have their money invested, as I say, under the mattresses. What is the idea? They do not want to spend. Because taxes are very high. This is risky to invest. So that is the worst scenario. If they don't have answers, if they do not reach what he proposes to control inflation and poverty.

Alex Usher: What's the best case scenario?

Marcelo Rabossi: The best scenario would be if he understands that Argentina has not an economic problem, but a social one, and that deals with the lack of social development and inclusion. He must put all his efforts to work things out in those areas. I guess that there are chances he will end his four years, but people are thinking that he will not be able to make it to 2026 in the four years of the presidential period. If he succeeds in question of economic reason, I guess that he has some chances to survive, no?

Alex Usher: Thank you very much, Marcelo. That's all the time we have for today but thank you for being with us.

Marcelo Rabossi: Thank you, Alex. Was a pleasure to meet you and have this conversation about the future and the president of Argentina.

Alex Usher: And it just remains for me to thank our show's excellent producers, Tiffany McLennan and Sam Pufek, and you, our listeners, for tuning in. If you have any comments or suggestions for future podcasts, please drop us a line at podcast@higheredstrategy.com. Please join us next week when our guest will be Brian Rosenberg, president in residence, that's a real thing, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former President of Macalester University in Minnesota. And he'll be talking to us about his new book on change in higher education, which sports the fantastic title, “Whatever it is, I'm against it.” Bye for now.