QS University Rankings: Latin America

QS released its second Latin American University Rankings on 13 June 2012. As a contrast to the volatility expected in these exercises, the standing of the top seven Latin American universities remained unchanged between 2011 and 2012. QS attributes this stability to its methodology, in which five out of the seven measures are given equal weight (10%). But the results highlight the gulf that exists between the leading universities and the rest in terms of the quality and robustness of data available for describing and assessing the quality of institutions. This may not be a characteristic of universities per se but rather of the national systems they are part of. 

QS expanded its list of ranked Latin American universities from 200 in 2011 to 250 in 2012 (the region has more than 3,500 universities). Beyond the 150th ranked institution, the availability and meaningfulness of performance data diminishes rapidly. It will be interesting to see in future years the movement of institutions in the ranks as universities across the region become more adept at measuring institutional performance.

The ranking exercises by QS, SCImago (with its Iberoamerican Ranking) and Webometrics affirm the salience of the Latin American higher education sector. There is a growing interest in the region as the next frontier of higher education expansion after East Asia and the Pacific. Enrolments at Latin American universities have been growing at a faster pace than the world average for the past ten years.

The dominance of Brazil is apparent in the QS Latin America rankings: 28 universities in the top 100 (though only three in the top 10); Chile has 13 in the top 100 but three in the top 10. There are 18 Argentinean universities in the top 100 but none in the top 10, while Mexico has 15 in the top 100 and two in the top 10. The fifth university powerhouse of the region is Colombia, with 12 in the top 100 and one in the top 10. These five countries contain 86 of the top 100 (see Table 1).




Interesting points emerge when considering these results against the number of institutions in each country (see Table 2). First of all, 16% of Argentinean universities appear in the top 100. This is more than double any other country, but Argentina has relatively few institutions compared to the others. Conversely, 1% of Brazilian universities are in the top 100 (28 of 2,176 institutions). Argentina and Colombia have the highest ratio of top 100 institutions to tertiary education students. Argentina has the third-highest number of enrolments in tertiary education in the region and a higher ratio of top 100 institutions to enrolments compared to Brazil and Mexico, which have the highest number of enrolments. Venezuela, Cuba and Argentina have the highest average number of enrolments per institution, whereas Costa Rica, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile have institutions with average enrolments of fewer than 5,000.

An interesting characteristic of institutions in the QS Latin American rankings is that 61 of the top 100 are public universities and 39 private (of which 11 are not-for-profit); 71 are older than 50 years. In a region that has about half of its students in public institutions and half in the private sector, these annual ranking of universities are likely to bring about institutional change and improvement in the quality and governance of institutions.


At the institutional level, the Universidade de São Paulo (USP, established in 1934) is numero uno, followed by the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, a private university established in 1888; the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp, established 1966) is ranked third. The top three Latin American universities are therefore a mix of public, private and young. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM, established 1910) is fourth. UNAM in fact ranks highest in the academic reputation measure (30% of the overall score) but its position is dented by its low proportion of staff with PhDs (ranking 71st) and papers per faculty (65th).

The two dimensions that USP would need to focus to strengthen its top standing are faculty-student ratio (where it ranked 84th) and citations per paper. Generally, larger universities do not fare well on the citations metric. While USP has the greatest research output in Latin America it would need to increase its international collaborations as a way of strengthening citations per paper. Table 3 shows the standing of the top 10 Latin American universities in QS and other university rankings.




Three of the top 10 institutions were outside the top in 2011. The Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (now ranked 8th) and the Universidad de Santiago de Chile (10th) both moved up 11 places, while the Universidad de Concepcion moved up three places to 9th.  The three that dropped out of the top 10 were the Universidad de Buenos Aires (now 11th), the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (12th) and the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil (13th). 




Beyond the top 10, there are two universities that stand out in the 2012 QS rankings: the Universidad de La Sabana in Bogota (now ranked 63rd) and the Universidad Nacional Costa Rica (66th), which moved up more than 35 positions and are new to the top 100. Overall, there are 38 new entrants to the top 200 (of these 10 are new to the top 100). Some of course go down: seven dropped between 21 and 34 positions; another 20 dropped between 11 and 20 positions and a further 22 dropped between 3 and 10 positions. Universities face the challenge of managing reputation and institutional relations if their positions weaken year on year or if they drop out of their perceived top standing. Developing a set of targeted strategies to seek improvement may be required if they desire to remain competitive in this ranking game.

Universities are part of the vibrancy that cities radiate on the world stage. Overall, 46 Latin American cities are home to the top 100 universities in 2012 (although only 14 cities have two or more universities in the top 100), compared to 60 cities in 2011. So which are the university cities of Latin America? They are the most populous ones: Buenos Aires is home to ten of the top 100 universities, followed by Mexico City with eight, then Santiago with seven and Bogota and São Paulo with 6 each. These five cities are home to 37 of the top 100 universities of Latin America. All but Bogota were included in the top 50 QS Best Student Cities list, released in January 2012.

The stage is set for further development of higher education in the region. Brazil is performing well in the regional ranking but it lags in the world universities rankings. There is work to do for Brazilian universities around international and research collaboration and improving research impact. Chile’s economic reforms and educational openness have paid off handsomely but it needs to increase its research output considerably and that requires concerted effort over years. Argentina faces the challenge of reinvigorating its higher education system if it is to remain competitive in the rise of the global Latin American university. Colombia’s educational reforms still have a way to go but could pose a threat to the standing of Argentinean universities in the QS rankings.  The ability of Mexico to reform and improve performance in the regional and global stage cannot be underestimated. An improvement in the number of academic staff with PhDs (which could be the precursor to more research papers and citations) could lift Mexican universities above their challengers.

Angel Calderon
Principal Advisor, Policy and Planning
RMIT University, Melbourne


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