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Universities “must think long term” when investing in Latin America

Stakeholders from both British universities and education support organisations in Latin America have said that investment must be looked at in the “long term” for the region.

The UK is high on the demand list for Latin American students in terms of location, one panelist said. Photo: Pexels

As the market may come to be one of the more stable around the world amid political tensions, an investment in Latin America may be worthwhile

As the market may become one of the more stable around the world amid political tensions surrounding China – and potential “boom and bust” with India – an investment in garnering students from different countries in Latin America could prove to be extremely worthwhile.

“There are opportunities we didn’t have before, like the Turing Scheme, and we can’t just think about recruitment,” said Neville Wylie, deputy principal of internationalisation at the University of Stirling, speaking on a panel at the 2022 BUILA Conference in Wales.

“We have to think about a portfolio of activities and engagement, and we need to pay back into that market in a way we haven’t in the past.

“We get relatively small numbers of students [from the region], but there are much more to the institutions on an intellectual level than some other places in the world,” he continued.

Fiona Brown, head of international student recruitment at the University of Manchester, also stressed Latin America’s “compelling” student market.

“It’s interesting, very much around the calibre of students who come to the UK – and there is a range of subjects there is demand and interest for,” she said during the panel.

“The picture is probably slightly different across humanities, engineering and biomedical subjects… but holistic engagement is important. When there’s a strong long-standing connection through research, there’s an opportunity for looking creatively at research funding,” she explained.

“There are opportunities we didn’t have before”

However, speaking to The PIE News after the panel, international market development manager for North and South America at University of Bristol, Gary Coulter, said that while Latin America an interesting market, the reality makes it more difficult in terms of recruitment.

“Return on investment is much worse in Latin America versus other parts of the world, especially India or China, and most universities, while they want diversity, have to act rationally and with commercial sense,” he told The PIE.

Despite the practical difficulty possibly faced by recruiters, encouraging sentiment comes in the fact the UK also fares well in terms of students’ views on its study prospects.

“There is a perception that the UK offers good quality education, and they’re eager to come especially for postgraduate studies,” Angelica Careaga, executive director of CASE Latin America – joining virtually – told delegates.

Many Latin American countries have experienced a change in government or may do soon, like Brazil, and are financially quite stable, like Peru and Ecuador, she highlighted, suggesting universities need to be more creative in their approach to recruiting.

“That sense of building something sustainable and of mutual benefit is more important than ever, even if it starts small,” said Brown.

She also talked about the fact that of late, Peru has been coming through in a “surprising sort of way” for Manchester – possibly down to the current stability of the economy and a settled political landscape following a slightly tumultuous election year in 2021.

However, Coulter stressed again the idea of new partnerships and building sustainable, long-term partnerships and student recruitment channels is more difficult than one would think.

“Lots of universities have good links in places like Brazil, many of them through their academics or their staff, the same in Colombia, and Mexico. Everybody tends to go to the same regions and do the same thing – nobody approaches the funding bodies with a single voice,” he said.

“There is a perception that the UK offers good quality education”

Coulter suggested to the panel during the subsequent Q&A that perhaps a singular body where efforts for recruitment can be co-ordinated, allowing for more diversity to be garnered with less difficulty – especially in terms of recruitment trip locations, which for Latin America, can often be extremely hard work to set up and not return a great deal of success.

Careaga also pointed out that there are other ways to recruit students that are not just the usual channels of visits and partnerships – using those who have already been through the process themselves.

“A lot of alumni come back and have successful stories – you can use them,” she insisted.

“While a lot of alumni stay in the UK after their studies, looking at graduate routes and such, some also come back to Latin America – and they can help spread the word.”

She also noted that the UK has experience with Europe in developing programs, but in Latin America they’re “eager to push more for dual degrees or collaborative research” – and after Covid, it’ll be easier to go online to recruit.

“It will be easier to use the online experience in a way that will still be attractive, while strengthening the partnerships you already have,” Careaga added.

Also touched upon during the panel was the availability of scholarships in the region. While Careaga praised the fact that one year master’s programs would be beneficial for those who cannot access the scholarship system, it’s also still an issue facing many of the region’s students.

“Mexican students, for example, don’t have [access to] funding scholarships from the government and have to be looking at possibilities of saving their own money, selling their cars even. I know a lot of people have done it just to come to the UK,” she said.

“The scholarship market has been squeezed with changes of policy, especially in Mexico and Chile,” said Wylie.

“There’s been change of political government in Colombia with impacts on scholarships, perhaps the overturn of the government in Brazil with elections this year, we might see a more sympathetic government coming in – they are, after all, the government that produced the science without borders program. It’s a checkered picture on the scholarship front,” he explained.

“It’s a checkered picture on the scholarship front”

Because of the many different economic ecosystems seen on the continent, Coulter said it might be more difficult to get funding from universities to attempt to recruit.

“They want people to go in, open partnerships and focus on these regions, but the reality is universities operate a very strict budget. There are massive barriers to entry,” he said.

“But if you had a body that could just take away all of those initial barriers, that gave you the information about funding in these countries, so that you could go to negotiate and come back with a broad baseline agreement – universities can really start working in these regions,” he added.

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