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La Educación
Número: (126-128) I,III
Año: 1997

Overall Characterization of Latin American Education

In the first place, it is interesting to look comparatively at the educational shortcomings of the region, and in particular at the most notorious of these, its illiteracy rates. In 1990, illiteracy among adults in Latin America, in rough terms, was the lowest among the countries classed as “developing” (15%), although it was clearly much higher than that for developed countries as a whole (3%).

There are some important differences among Latin American countries in this regard, and there are also discrepancies in the recent data provided by international agencies.  There is general agreement (or only slight discrepancy) in estimates of the overall illiteracy rate for persons 15 years and older for the region, as already noted, as well as on the rates for Argentina, Bolivia and Chile (respectively 4.2, 22.6 and 6.7 per cent). But in round figures, Cuba has 3% illiteracy according to one source, and 6% according to another; El Salvador has 27 or 31%; Haiti, 47 or 57%; the Dominican Republic, 17 or 23%; and there are other lesser but still significant discrepancies (UNESCO-UNICEF 1993 versus UNESCO 1993 as well as the World Bank 1995, which agrees with the previous source).

Despite the lack of statistical reliability that these discrepancies suggest, we shall classify the countries of the region by their adult illiteracy rates.

In only two cases — Panama and El Salvador — do we need to average the available data in order to place them within a specific category, and in the case of the Dominican Republic, we must use the only data available (UNESCO 1993).

Six countries of the region had adult illiteracy rates of less than 10%, according to these estimates. These are Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Close behind them, with rates of 10 to 15%, came seven more countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Venezuela). Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic had adult illiteracy rates of between 16 and 30%. The remaining two — Guatemala and Haiti — both had rates higher than 40%, thus placing them far behind the others, with practically one half of their adult population unable to read and write. (These rates are close to those for the Arab states and sub-Saharan Africa, as a whole, and that for India).

Yet these figures do represent progress in reducing illiteracy (the overall rate for Latin America has dropped by 7.5 percentage points over the last decade), and this progress has been supported by the rising rates of school enrolment, as can be seen from Table 1. We must remember that these literacy figures refer to the entire population of adults, a large part of whom left school long before the recent advances in education. Growing literacy, however, particularly among the young, has gone hand in hand with the great expansion of schooling.

The most complete data on school enrolment around the world relate to gross rates (i.e. those that compare the total enrolled student body at each level, regardless of age, with the official age group statistics, a comparison that often produces enrolment rates of higher than 100%). Table 1 shows at a glance that school enrolment rates have risen significantly all over the world during the last thirty years. In 1960 Latin America’s enrolment rates at all three levels of schooling were below average world rates, although the differences were small at the primary level and in the overall rate. At the secondary and higher education levels, however, the differences were major, since Latin American rates were about one half of those for the world as a whole.

In the following decade, only at the primary education level did the region manage to exceed world rates. At the same time, it was behind world rates in optional education, a conclusion that is the opposite of what we would expect to find if we accepted the characterization of Latin American education as described earlier. In 1980 the region exceeded world rates at both the primary and the tertiary levels, while at the secondary level it was close to the average, but still slightly lower.

The most recent data, for the 1990s, show Latin America above world rates of enrolment at all levels, although not by far, while the margin at the tertiary level is somewhat greater. Although these are gross rates, it should be noted that only those for the primary level should be regarded as less reliable than the net rates might be. In the two remaining levels, the gross rates can be taken as proxies for the net rates with no loss of reliability (see Eichelbaum de Babini, 1995).

The primary level enrolment rate is greater than that for Europe, and is in fact the highest in the world, as Table 1 shows. Yet if Latin American averages are greater than those for Europe, it is precisely because this indicator is a poor one. Otherwise, because European countries succeeded long ago in enrolling the bulk of their young people, and have for many reasons been able to retain them in school (through tradition and experience, because of their relative wealth and the low demographic weight that students represent in a typically aging population), they would normally be expected to outperform Latin American systems that have only expanded recently, and where the effort required has been so much greater, given its economic and demographic circumstances. The higher rates achieved in Latin America do not in general correspond to countries that have succeeded in enrolling all their school age population, but rather to those that have the greatest number of students above the theoretically expected age. The enrolment rates as such do not allow us to distinguish between a desirable and an undesirable situation, unless we are looking at countries or regions with a major enrolment gap, where broad numbers of people have no access to the school system, or leave it very early.

Some 75% of Latin American countries, and more than 90% of the region’s population, fall into the over-100 per cent category for primary school enrolment. In the more advanced countries of Latin America this probably occurs as in Argentina, where the desirable alternative is to go to school at the normal age, and the undesirable one is to do so a later age, a circumstance that may pose obstacles — at times serious — to a student’s subsequent school career. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, young people end up completing primary school, sooner or later, and the gross enrolment rates are swollen by both the early graduates and the laggards.

A summary of available information for comparing regions over the last few decades shows both the general progress that Latin America has made in terms of enrolment, when regional data are compared with world averages, and the fact that progress has been somewhat less at the intermediate level.
  • Graph 1, which is simply a graphic version of the data for secondary enrolment for the two dates that bracket the period under consideration, shows nevertheless the relative progress that has been made in enrolment at that level.
  • Graph 2 shows, in a similar way, the regional enrolment rates for the higher education level, and indicates greater progress, as noted earlier, in comparison with world averages.
The 1993 UNESCO report offers a global typology of higher education, primarily in quantitative terms, and compares the situation of our region in higher education. That publication identifies a category of middle-income and even low-income countries, most of which are in Latin America, generally with less than US$ 6,000 per capita, that have education enrolment rates at this level as high as those of most countries of the OECD. The countries mentioned are Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile, along with others countries from outside the region, such as Korea, the Philippines, Jordan and Bulgaria, and two OECD countries (Greece and Portugal). Yet the overall data for Latin America, as was the case with secondary education, do not stand out very clearly. Although the rate is almost two and a half times that of Asia, and more than three and a half times that of Africa, as well as being above the world average, it is still far from reaching the North American level, which is very high, or those of Europe and Oceania. With respect to the European rate, we can see that Latin America is twenty years behind: in fact Europe’s rate in 1970 was somewhat higher than Latin America’s in 1990. In summary, school enrolment in Latin America made great strides overall between 1960 and 1990, as can be readily appreciated from a comparison with world averages at all levels, while the regional data show a somewhat lesser degree of progress at the intermediate level. It should also be noted that the growth of enrolment is a generalized worldwide phenomenon, and one that obliges us to look for explanations beyond mere national and regional differences. Latin America is no exception from this viewpoint:  if its 1990 enrolment rates showed relative improvement against the rest of the world, this must clearly mean that enrolment growth was even greater in our region than in the world as whole.


Let us now turn very briefly to differences between countries. If we look at the twenty countries that traditionally make up the region, we find hardly any difference in gross rates for the primary level: most countries have scores greater than 99, and a few between 95 and 99, differences that are hardly significant, given the imprecision of the data. Four countries, however, have rates between 56 and 85, indicating that there is still a sharp enrolment gap (see Table 2). There, even gross rates, which include students of all ages, are well below one hundred, and the net rates, which cover only students within the official age group, show that there is a major proportion of school-age children who are not in school. In Haiti, which has traditionally had the poorest record in the region, and where net rates appear to have declined in recent years, the latest available rate (1989) stood at 26 (according to UNESCO-UNICEF figures: this was roughly one half of the already very low net rate achieved in 1985). We must make allowance for error in these latest data, since the same figure is cited in one source as a gross rate, and in another source as a net rate. It is likely that the net rates are not very reliable in this international analysis, since there is no way to analyze their trends systematically over a series of years, for lack of complete information.

At the intermediate level there is a greater variation among the twenty countries considered. The more advanced countries in this regard have more than 70% of their youth of appropriate age in school (Cuba, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Chile and Argentina), a rate that is similar to that for Oceania; another five countries have between 50 and 69% in school at the intermediate level, which is near the overall rate for Latin America (Peru, Panama, Ecuador, Mexico and Colombia); two countries have rates of between 40 and 50% (Nicaragua and Costa Rica), close to the overall rate for Asia and for developing countries as a whole; another group of five countries has rates of between 29 and 40%, which puts them one to two decades behind the rates for the region as a whole (Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Honduras). And the remaining three countries fall below 29% enrolment for youths at this level (Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti), which means that they are behind the overall rate for Africa (see Table 2).

With regard to higher-level education, as noted above, one group of countries has internationally very high rates of 25% of more of the age group concerned. This is quite an achievement, when we consider that European countries as a whole have a rate of 29% at this level of education. The case of Argentina is exception, however, with a rate of 40%, similar to the average for developed countries, but this is not in fact surprising, given the fact that higher education has had wide coverage there, with some fluctuations, for several decades. At the other extreme, there are some countries with low rates of enrolment from a regional viewpoint, such as Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay, at a little below 10%. Yet, in comparison with regional rates for Asia and Africa, or those for developing countries as a whole, these are not particularly low (see Table 1).