In the last quarter of the twentieth century student movements in Latin America established a Latin American public university tradition labeled the ‘State Building University’. This was a development of the Humboldtian ideals of modernisation and academic autonomy, in which the university was animated by continuing constructive criticism and a key responsibility in the process of social transformation. Beginning in the later 1970s the State Building University was challenged by a new philosophy of privatization and its attendant market oriented policies, later denominated ‘neoliberalism’. This agenda, which was essentially tangential to the concerns of the State Building University about social uplift and democratic political reform, at the same time also challenged the State Building University by threatening to eliminate its conditions of possibility. The State Building University came under strong pressure to adopt the US elite research university model with its reproduction of market-oriented practices and policies and this triggered a long phase of financial and identity crises in Latin American public universities. Their problems have included contradictory development projects and policies, financial uncertainty, profound inequalities, high levels of privatization and enrollment lags.
Latin American higher education enrollments vary by countries from 35 to 90 percent of the age group. Overall, the region is highly privatized (48%), stratified, and plagued by profound inequalities. Student struggles for access and tuition free HE have been a constant. More recently national systems and institutions (Argentina, Chile, Honduras and Mexico among others) have been sites of strong women mobilization for gender equality and against gender violence. These pre-existing tensions and the ongoing social conflicts endemic to higher education have now been compounded by challenges posed by COVID-19. Most salient among these are increased socioeconomic and gender inequalities. In this conversation we will address the situation of Latin American public universities in the light of historical developments, contemporary difficulties and contests, as well as new troubles and opportunities.