A Cultural Political Economy account of Higher Education in Mercosur

By Aliandra Lazzari Barlete

CPGJ’s Aliandra Barlete received the Best Dissertation Award by the CIES’s Higher Education Special Interest Group for her PhD thesis titles ‘A Cultural Political Account of Higher Education in Mercosur’. Below we share the thesis’s prologue.

It was a cold day in June 2016 in Montevideo. I sat alone outside the closed doors of the Conference Room where one of the meetings of the Mercosur Education Sector (SEM) happened. I waited for a participant to do an interview. Mercosur, short for the Common Market of the South, is a regional organisation formed by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Its Education Sector coordinates and implements educational policies at the regional level, which includes activity in the area of higher education (HE). My trip to Montevideo was planned to coincide with the meeting of SEM’s Commission for Higher Education (CHE), as I was hoping to observe it. It did not work that way. It was my first visit to the Mercosur Headquarters, and I found the building rather quiet. 

The interview was part of my first outing to collect data in the Mercosur Member States for this study on the development of a HE project within a Latin American trade agreement whose initial inception was in the early 1990s. The emergence of a formal Education Sector in the early days of a trade agreement (trade agreement) was a unique development in region-building around the world. Aware of this, I was eager to experience the region from the inside. However, whilst my participant was inside the room, I waited alone looking at the closed doors, reflecting back on the negative reply to observe the meeting. At the time, I thought that the combination of being an academic and a citizen of the region (Brazil) would give me the necessary credentials to attend it. Disappointed for the missed opportunity to collect data for my research, I remember grumbling to myself: “Who are those people, and what do they do that enables them to make decisions about HE for the region? How are projects even negotiated given the ongoing political crises in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela? Will, or could, any of these plans ever be implemented in this context?” As I kept on waiting – outside alone in a silent building – more questions whirled around my head: where is ‘everyone’?

Anxious, I got up and asked one of the (only two) security guards for permission to take a photo of two large murals in the building’s entrance hall. Each painted mural measured about six meters long per two meters high and are painted in black and red colour. The security guard’s reply was warm and reassuring: “Yes, of course you can take photos. This is a public building!” Then, it hit me. I realised that I had somehow come to understand public as being ‘for everyone to access and for free’. This was likely the source of my sense of entitlement to attend that SEM meeting. 

After the interview, I left the building and looked out over at the grey La Plata River. Walking slowly towards Montevideo’s city centre, I thought of the upcoming changes to my research questions. I pondered (worried, too) where to begin explaining how and why projects in HE emerged in Mercosur. The contradictions in the literature about Mercosur and its Education Sector were confronting. For instance, there were different positioning about the nature of the HE project. On the one hand, Mercosur HE was seen as an ‘alternative’ solidary model of regional cooperation in HE. And yet its outcome had led to members states asserting their own sovereignty in a dispute for regional hegemony (Botto, 2015a). On the other, the principle of a democratic organism permeated much of the SEM official discourse – which I had taken time to read before my visit. And yet institutional involvement with SEM activities was restricted, either as a result of few actors being invited into decision-making debates, or of disinterest in the region (Krawczyk & Sandoval, 2012). So, what am I looking at? What type of sector Mercosur HE is, and what role does it have? After 25 years of SEM, how much has it changed? What would cause any changes? How might I approach the study of this regional project in such a way to grasp hold of shifts in meaning and relations of power over time?

To be sure, there had been efforts to study Mercosur as a regional project, but often the framing was limited to the visible outputs of the HE regional project, such as the successful implementation of the accreditation project (‘Arcusur’, see Chapter 6). Instead, I was growing curious about where the broader set of ideas for HE in Mercosur, including, the accreditation project, came from. The relationship with the European experience is often cited as the ‘model’. Scholars indicate a spectrum of perceptions on this – from quite a lot (Azevedo, 2014) to rather little (Hermo, 2014). Where is this influence clear? How much of an inspiration can be assimilated in diverse contexts? And what about the United States – is it always the elephant in the room? 

And yet, despite this avalanche of questions, as I left the Mercosur building, all I can remember is silence. Not only the building was very quiet, but there was no mentioning of the Education Sector’s meetings on the news or in the daily newspapers. And I do not mean to say that nothing had been done. Quite the contrary: the large number of meetings and official outputs (minutes, protocols, research) proves otherwise. From my reading so far, I could not pin point where its legitimacy, authority and bureaucratic expertise were. It made me think of Daniela Perrotta (2013)’s indication that one of periods of Mercosur was marked by visibility. Who was meant to see the results of these efforts? From my positioning as a citizen of the region and as a researcher I (unfortunately) could not. Could regionalism exist only in the eye of the beholder?

Intrigued, I decided to look backwards at Mercosur HE. I would start from the beginning: a careful and thorough tracing of the history of SEM as an educational project within the early days of the economic regional organisation (the common market), and the emergence of the HE Sector until its recent past (end of 2016). Through analysing the region’s discourses, I hoped to look for shared meanings, new understandings and the materialisation of ideas of regionalism and regional HE. Inspired by political geography I was keen to understand Mercosur HE – a sectoral regional project – as a space, shaped by social relations in the context of a region located in the developing world (Massey, 2005; Santos, 1975, 1977, 1985). Its complexity, embedded in an unstable political economy, produced a unique configuration looking for possibilities within, and in spite of, their large differences. In the following pages of this thesis, I hope to show how and why.