Argentina boasts one of the best education systems in Latin America, in terms of both attainment and funding of institutions. More than 98% of citizens over the age of 15 are literate, and public and private universities frequently perform well – along with Chilean and Brazilian institutions – in global rankings systems.
The focus of reform under President Mauricio Macri has been to improve technological education and build stronger links with the private sector, with the goal of providing young Argentines with the skills required for the modern workplace. As with other sectors, the new government invited participation from society and stakeholders to help shape future reform under the July 2017 Commitment to Education plan.
The state provides kindergarten for children of ages two to five, but only the last year is compulsory. Students then spend six years in primary school, until the age of 11, followed by six years at secondary school, which is divided into lower and upper segments, with students specialising in the latter. Access to tertiary education is determined by an entry exam for public institutions, with some private entities requiring additional tests.
According to the OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2017” report on the Argentine education system, in 2014 the country spent 5.6% of GDP on primary and secondary education, above the OECD group average of 5.2%. However, given that the organisation contains a large number of the world’s most prosperous economies, the total annual spend per student of $4240 in 2014 was one of the lowest of the 40 countries covered. In that same year, private education, meanwhile, accounted for 12% of the total education spend, which matched the OECD average.
Provincial governments are largely responsible for the funding and oversight of primary and secondary education. The total educational infrastructure budget for 2016-19 is $321m, a 19% rise on the figure for 2012-15. In early 2018 there were 52 new schools under construction in Buenos Aires Province, of which 31 were kindergartens, 12 were primary schools and nine were secondary, Soledad Acuña, the Buenos Aires minister of education told local media in November 2017.
Argentina has traditionally participated in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, standardised tests taken by 15-year-olds, but in 2015 a reduction in sample size meant the country was excluded from the rankings. Under the new government the Ministry of Education has developed its own evaluation system known as Aprender, or Learn, which saw 29,000 schools and over 900,000 students participate in 2017.
Released in April 2018, the results show positive trends in primary education, but also highlight worrying challenges in national mathematics skills. In 2017, 65.6% of the country’s primary school children were judged to be at satisfactory or advanced levels in social sciences, compared to 55.5% in results from Learn’s predecessor in 2013, the National Evaluation Plan. In the natural sciences 67.5% reached these levels of attainment against 53.2% in 2013.
Secondary school students are measured in terms of language skills and mathematics. There has been a marked improvement in the former, with 62.5% attaining satisfactory or advanced levels, compared to 50.5% in 2013. However, performance in mathematics has declined, with only 31.2% achieving satisfactory or better results compared to 35.3% in 2013.
The results of the study also showed a major disparity between the educational attainment of students based on household income and location, with wealthier, urban students outperforming less well-off and rural students. Only 4% of Argentines believe that education is the most important challenge facing the country but, on announcing the results of Learn, President Macri told local press that the performance of the education sector kept him awake at night. “We can and will improve by applying concrete policies,” he said.
Schools of the Future
It is in the area of secondary education that the Macri administration has focused its reform efforts. In August 2017 the Ministry of Education announced the Escuelas del Futuro, or Schools of the Future, programme as part of the larger National Comprehensive Plan for Digital Education. The project aims to link innovative teaching methods and emerging technologies with apprenticeship programmes. The initial stage will see 1.28m students in 3000 Buenos Aires secondary schools receive lessons in basic coding, learn English through long distance language software and work with tablets, robotics and drones. The boldest – and most controversial – aspect of the project is the internship component. In 2018 students from 19 secondary schools will spend half of their time in unpaid internships in companies and organisations. The following year the number of participating schools will increase to 44.
Unsurprisingly, given the country’s long history of public education and the strength of its trade unions, the ambitious reforms have faced strong opposition from some students and teachers. In September 2017 around 30 schools in Buenos Aires were occupied by protesters who claim the reform would reduce teaching staff, and would only benefit private enterprises through cheap labour. However, by October the occupations were over with many protesters seeking new ways to oppose the reforms.
The Ministry of Education expect the reforms to bear fruit in 2030, and there are plans to extend the school day from four to six hours, with teachers working eight hours a day, including class preparation time. The additional cost of the extended working day can be absorbed, as long as the funding is spent wisely. To achieve this, the ministry has enlisted the support of some of the world’s leading educators.
In November 2017 the government signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland, a global leader in education policy, for bilateral cooperation in educational issues. The seven-point document includes agreements to work on pedagogical methods, teacher training, the development of technical education programmes and digital apprenticeship programmes. “We have to have the humility to observe the good practices of other countries, not in order to copy them completely, but to judge if some of them could be adapted to our reality,” Alejandro Finocchiaro, the national minister of education, announced in late 2017.
Argentina has a long-established history of tertiary education. Córdoba’s National University, founded by Jesuit monks in 1613, prides itself on being one of the oldest universities in the Americas.
Today, there are 39 public universities and 46 public institutions offering three-year degrees for teachers and technicians, and four- to six-year degrees in other subjects, including law and medicine. Around one in three Argentines aged 20 to 24 were enrolled in tertiary education in 2013, according to the latest available OECD figures, with 18% of students graduating from three-year programmes, and a further 13% receiving a bachelors degree lasting four or more years.
While major public universities such as National University and the University of Buenos Aires are globally renowned, a number of smaller private universities, including San Andrés, Di Tella, Austral and the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology (Instituto Tecnológica de Buenos Aires, ITBA) are also among the best performing and most prestigious institutions. Private universities have more scope for specialisation, with ITBA having a reputation for engineering, Di Tella for social sciences and San Tomas in business and politics. “Students from more traditional backgrounds are expected to gain professional degrees in medicine, law or engineering,” Lucas Grosman, rector of San Andrés University told OBG. “In more innovative universities, there is a much greater focus on entrepreneurship, with many of our students going on to start businesses or work in politics. We think the change in government will create more demand for courses in finance.”
In 2014 Argentina spent the equivalent of 1.5% of GDP on tertiary education, below the OECD average of 1.6%. One area where the country falls significantly behind OECD averages is in post graduate studies. Just 2% of the population have a master’s degree, compared to 18% in the OECD, and just 0.3% gain a doctoral degree. However, this situation could change. “A few years ago the weak peso meant that professors’ salaries were lower in Argentina, which made it difficult to attract professors from other countries or repatriate Argentine scholars,” Grosman told OBG. “This won’t change overnight, but we are starting to see a shift. Besides, new master’s degrees are being offered in disciplines that are attractive relative to the region.”
By early 2018 the Macri’s administration’s approach to modernising the Argentine workforce through education was beginning to take shape. The opening of the economy puts new onus on schools and universities to provide their students with the skills necessary to compete in the global market place. The results of the first batch of students to graduate from the Schools of the Future programme will be eagerly anticipated by progressive innovators and could set the tone for deeper reform in the coming years.
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