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Rio de Janeiro, long known for its beaches and bikinis, has a new claim to fame: dynamical systems theory. In August, Artur Avila, a researcher from Rio’s National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, won the Fields Medal, one of the highest distinctions for contributions to mathematics.

Often seen in shorts and flip-flops, the muscular 35-year-old looks more like one of Rio’s surfers than the man who is revolutionising dynamical systems, the branch of mathematics that explores systems that evolve over time according to a particular set of rules. In an interview with Quanta Magazine, the maths wunderkind explained his unlikely ascent into the academic elite from a middle class family in Rio. He was expelled from school and still likes to sleep well into the afternoon. “I would get fired pretty fast from most jobs,” he said. His story is perhaps even more remarkable because of his nationality. As a Brazilian, he is the first Latin American to win the Fields Medal in its near 80-year history.

Latin America is one of the fastest-developing regions in the world and is home to some of the world’s top companies, artistic and sporting talents, and wealthiest individuals. The two richest bankers on the planet, Luis Carlos Sarmiento and Joseph Safra, are from Colombia and Brazil respectively.

There is, however, still a dearth of academic talent in the region, not just in mathematics but across most disciplines. There is not one university from Latin America in the top 100 institutions in the 2013-14 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings 2014/15 or China’s Academic Ranking of World Universities. The University of São Paulo, considered the best in the region by THE, is ranked only in the top 250, behind universities from other emerging markets such as China, South Africa, Turkey, Taiwan and Russia.

Some dispute the methodology of the rankings, criticising the lists’ focus on research activities and their failure to recognise the idiosyncrasies of the region. However, Latin American academics are the first to admit the rankings also reflect the poor state not only of higher education but of education as whole in the region. Furthermore, Latin America’s poor showing poses a huge challenge for the region’s future, they say. Countries such as Brazil desperately need to increase productivity to keep growing and this will only be possible with greater innovation and a better-educated workforce.

For Roberto Rigobon, the Venezuelan-born professor of management and applied economics at MIT Sloan School of Management in the US, the reason why Latin American universities have fallen behind is simple: a lack of investment.

“Latin America actually has an incredible history of education,” he says, pointing to Argentina’s success in tackling illiteracy as early as the 19th century. Continued investment at the beginning of the 20th century helped establish centres of excellence in the region, particularly in science and applied science, he adds. However, over the past few decades, spending on education has not kept pace with population growth. “We have underinvested tremendously in universities and the quality has stagnated,” Prof Rigobon says.

Low salaries for academics also force many to opt for consultancy work rather than research, damaging their university’s position in the rankings. “It’s very hard to be a pure academic in Latin America, especially in public universities,” he adds.

Under the THE’s methodology, teaching is only worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking, while research activities (both the research itself and the extent to which that research is cited in other publications) is worth 60 per cent of the final score.

Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil

“One important reason for the scarcity of successful universities in our region is that Latin America and the Caribbean account for less than 3 per cent of global investment in research and development, while the US and Europe account for 34 and 25 per cent respectively,” says Marco Antonio Zago, dean of the University of São Paulo.

In countries such as Brazil, public universities face additional challenges depending on whether their funding comes from the federal or the state government. Jaime Arturo Ramírez, dean of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, says one of the university’s biggest challenges is its dependence on funding from the federal government in Brasília, which follows rigid guidelines and focuses on teaching rather than research.

“The resources come stamped with their final destination, so the university has little freedom to decide how to invest these funds,” says Prof Ramírez.

Meanwhile, the University of São Paulo highlights its reliance on state funding as a reason for its success. “Our success is partly due to stable and consistent funding by the São Paulo state government, including significant resources for research,” says Prof Zago.

Some public universities manage to get around the limitations of federal funding by forming partnerships with the private sector. Coppead, the Graduate School of Business of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is one of the most innovative in this respect. About half of its total funding comes from private sector companies such as carmaker Fiat and L’Oréal, the cosmetics company, which finances research at the university into consumer behaviour. Aside from financing ongoing studies, some companies receive executive training in return for financial support, while others simply donate to guarantee the quality of their future employees, says Vicente Ferreira, dean of Coppead.

The extra cash and freedom to invest has turned Coppead into one of the world’s top 100 business schools (it is 79th in the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking). However, Coppead’s funding model is only largely viable for economics- or business-based courses. Rio’s Federal University as a whole does not even feature among the top 400 universities in the THE ranking.

Others have turned to the not-for-profit model to get ahead. Insper, one of Brazil’s other top business schools, based in São Paulo, is an independent institution that depends on donations and student fees rather than government support. “The key is to create a virtuous circle,” says Claudio Haddad, Insper’s president and founder. “We have to attract a good faculty, which then attracts good students, who in turn attract other good students and a good faculty and so on.” The school will soon begin offering engineering courses as well as business, economics and law.

For-profit institutions have also revolutionised the market, providing reasonably good-quality courses at a relatively low cost for students. Last year, Brazil’s biggest and second-biggest players in the market, Kroton and Anhanguera Educacional Participações respectively, agreed to merge to form the world’s largest for-profit education company.

In Chile, university funding is also undergoing a period of deep change. Following widespread student riots over the past few years, President Michelle Bachelet has proposed a series of reforms to overhaul the country’s education system, which is often considered expensive and of poor quality. One of her boldest promises is to make university education free. However, she has struggled to push the reforms through Congress and will likely only tackle the question of university funding later this year once reforms to school funding have been passed.

Meanwhile, other countries such as Mexico have focused on expanding their student loan programmes to widen access to higher education.

Aside from adopting innovative new funding models, Latin America’s higher education institutions are rapidly becoming more international, giving themselves a greater chance of being recognised by the English language-focused rankings.

To this end, many Latin American governments have created specific programmes to encourage the international exchange of students and researchers. Under Brazil’s Science Without Borders programme, the country is sending 100,000 science, engineering and maths students to study abroad. Chile has a similar programme in place and Mexico recently proposed the Proyecta 100,000 programme to increase the number of Mexican students studying in the US to 100,000 by 2018.

Colombia’s universities have made a particular effort to send their students abroad. The University of the Andes, for example, has partnerships with the world’s top universities, such as Harvard in the US, while national funding bodies such as Colfuturo help Colombian students study abroad.

With further advances and greater improvements in the sector’s funding structures, the region’s universities are likely to continue to climb up the international rankings, academics say. The achievements of researchers such as Artur Avila are also vital, they say, and encourage Latin America’s younger generations to explore their raw talents and aspire to academic success. In the field of economics, at least, Latin Americans already have the upper hand when it comes to analysing periods of economic turmoil and crafting response measures, says MIT Sloan’s Prof Rigobon.

“As a region, we have suffered every conceivable economic crisis,” he says. “In many cases, we invented the crisis.”

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