Revitalizing Higher Education beyond the University

As the world advances towards increasingly complex global networks, new services and technologies must rise to meet new demands. The need for qualified technical talent is intense in all countries: Argentina is no exception, particularly in the present context of economic opening and an accompanying increase in investment.

This new moment demands continuous learning in both formal schooling and throughout one's professional career. However, we seem confined to old patterns of thought in which the university is treated as the only option for post-secondary education. Yet the "my son, the doctor" ideal seems unfit to a world that has changed so profoundly, even less so to a country where -- in practice -- only a minority of university students finish their studies.

Non-university higher education -- be it technical, humanistic, artistic or social - needs to become a viable alternative in Argentina, as is the standard in all developed countries. Polytechnic schools, community colleges, and tertiary schools offer significantly higher job prospects and starting salaries in Argentina than those provided by universities. Demand for these programs is accordingly high, but challenges remain in implementation. What are the next steps forward for Argentina?

To begin, we need to create awareness across all sections of society - from students to teachers to the socio-productive sector - that these systems are practical alternatives to university education. We need to advise and educate more students about the existence of this option, and in particular about its potential returns in terms of job prospects and future income.

Secondly, the programs offered must be linked to the hard and soft skills demanded by the productive sector. In a recent report conducted through INET (a dependent of the Ministry of Education) in which more than 700 businesses in Argentina's productive sector were polled, researchers found a strong and unmet demand for workers with advanced technical degrees, from nurses up to technical managers for small companies.

Stronger pathways between different educational programs are also needed. In the current framework, if a graduate of a technical secondary school in electro-mechanics wished to switch into a related field, such as automation and control, she would have to begin from scratch. Not a single class from her previous studies would be recognized. In addition to a greater fluidity between subjects, we should also create intermediate degrees, which appear to be in demand by the productive sector.

We must also confront the reality that more than 70% of students in higher education desert their studies. This specific circumstance requires deploying technical tools to enable and promote access to education, above all for young people who often already work and have family responsibilities. Long-distance education is one promising area which could revolutionize educational access for these populations.

Of the more than 17 million Argentines in the economically active population, less than 20% have university degrees and the 49% have not completed secondary school. This is an opportunity for adolescents and adults to acquire the training that the labor market of the 21st century requires. A secondary education, though still necessary, is no longer sufficient for professional advancement. Less than 300 thousand Argentines are currently pursuing higher education outside of the university; of these, many do not graduate and are left with few job prospects. This reality presents us with a great challenge and a great opportunity: promotion of higher education is fundamental for the social progress of our young people and for the competitiveness of our nation.

Gabriel Sánchez Zinny is the Executive Director of the National Institute of Technological Education (INET)