By Patrick HallerArgentina‘s students didn’t take to the streets recently like students in Chile and Colombia did, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to see some changes to the country’s education system. While literacy rates and primary school completion are high for the region, access to university to study IT or other advanced subjects essential for a thriving technology sourcing environment is often limited. Low income, and the system for granting higher-level degrees, are usually the culprits.
According to a 2009 report issued by the Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, between the 1960s and 1990s the gap between Argentina‘s rich and poor trended toward increased disparity, with a sharp uptick seen between the 1990s and early 2000s. However, this started turning around when “state intervention in the economy became more pervasive, labor market institutions were stronger and social protection schemes redistributed income to unskilled and semi-skilled workers,” the report says.
The legacy of income disparity, however, left some Argentines mired in a persistent tradition of sub-par educational facilities with little hope or ability to attend institutes of higher learning.
In The State of Education in Latin American and the Caribbean: Guaranteeing Quality Education for All, published in 2007, UNESCO researchers determined that “the proportions of people 20 to 24 years of age (15 to 19 years in the case of primary education) who have completed the different levels of education show systematic disparities disfavoring the populations with lower income levels.”
Still, the relatively encouraging statistic is that, according to the World Bank, Argentina‘s literacy rate among men and women in 2010 was 98%, indicating that in the least, the vast majority of Argentines obtain basic levels of education. Getting a higher-level degree is a different story.
High Costs for Higher Ed
While Argentina has approximately 80% tuition-free public and 20% expensive private universities, including the University of Buenos Aires (public) and the Technological Institute of Buenos Aires (private), doctorates and masters degrees can only be obtained from private institutions, making it difficult for lower-income students to achieve that level of education.
“Students in Buenos Aires, the area around it, and Cordoba are best prepared, because they are in the most important intellectual centers,” says Elena Luchetti, an education scientist, professor, and author of several books about education. This is one reason those two locations attract IT and other technology companies. “The oldest university is in Cordoba and that helps to improve education in general.” The level of overall education is directly affected wherever there are universities of national importance, and that is true all the way to Patagonia, according to Luchetti.
But for many Argentinians, they have low financial resources, so they cannot afford for their kids to go to university, and the child is limited to studying at a local vocational school, which might not have been their first choice. Scholarships do exist but there are not enough for all the students who want to get a better education. The University of Buenos Aires is considered one of the top schools in the country, so much so that some students who could afford private education choose to attend there. Other top public colleges include the National University of Cordoba, National University of Tucuman, and the University of Salta.
The Technological Institute of Buenos Aires leads the private institutions, along with the Business University of Argentina, a stand-out for business administration, and the University of Palermo, well-known for graphic design, public relations, and architecture.
While the public elementary and primary schools are free, families still need to pay for uniforms, supplies, and books, which can be burdensome, especially for those with several children. Even if parents manage to meet the costs, and comply with the compulsory education law, societal factors encroach upon the child’s ability to concentrate on learning. For example, as in many other countries, when a student can find work that requires little or no skills or training, they will most likely sacrifice school in favor of employment.
Fortunately the Argentine education system allows for students to re-enroll for either day or night classes, which some choose to do into their adulthood. High unemployment and teen pregnancy are two key factors in class repetition; however, boys are more likely to drop-out than pregnant girls.
High Rate of Primary Grads
According to the UNESCO report, in 2004 nearly 100% of Argentines completed primary education, which is also the case in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Paraguay. Comparatively, Chileans, Peruvians, and Panamanians come in at 95%, whereas Colombians and Dominicans show 90% and students in Nicaragua and Guatemala report less than 80% completion rates.
These figures decrease when looking at secondary primary education levels, with Argentina at 80%. (Nearshore neighbors Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, and Panama registered completion rates between 70% and 80%.)
The government has indicated it will support some initiatives to improve elementary and high schools, such as teacher evaluations (which will be designed in partnership with the teachers’ unions), standardized student assessments, additional classroom days, and longer school hours. Minister of Education Alberto Sileoni mentioned these options at the 39th Federal Council of Education Assembly in mid-December.
Learning Consciously and Creatively
One observer says a fundamental problem for the education system is the Argentine approach to teaching.
“In Argentina when the child goes to school at three to five years old, everything is creative. When they begin with primary school things change and the child must learn in a different way and forget their creativity,” says Alejandra Becco, Founder and Editorial Director of Kids News. “Many schools in Argentina have different programs and try to use creativity for learning,” but these are usually private schools.
Teachers in Argentina need to modernize their methods, Becco says. “If you give the child the capacity to think you can change the way they learn. Teach so they understand the knowledge. The teachers are not prepared for this challenge.”
“The Ministry of Education has begun to take measures to modernize the system and make it closer to the level in developed countries,” says Elena Luchetti. “This was resisted by some who were tied to tradition. But others thought that we could improve it.”
Luchetti says she is very optimistic that the new Minister of Education for the Buenos Aires province, Dr. Silvina Gvirtz, who took over at the end of December, is going to oversee modernization and efforts to make the highest levels of education accessible to all.
“One of the main challenges ahead is to improve learning and educational quality,” said Minister Sileoni during his recent remarks. Argentina also needs to “continue to generate digital inclusion policies through the Conectar Igualdad (Equality Connect) program . . . consolidate actions to ensure that children who start secondary finish it, and promote measures to attract families to the school, promoting a commitment to education.”