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World university rankings: Brazil schools dominate Latin America, but no 'Harvards'

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(Read caption) A researcher at the Department of Pharmacology at the Federal University of Sao Paulo looks over photo images of proteins taken with a confocal microscope at the on-site lab

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The latest university rankings place three Brazilian schools among the top 10 of all Latin American institutions. That puts Brazil ahead of Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, each of which have two institutions in the top 10. Uruguay has one.

The top ranked university in the region is Universidade Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), according to US News & World Report’s World's Best Universities rankings, which it said was based on the QS World University Rankings. (The Latin American list is here and the full world list is here.)

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If Brazilians are tempted to celebrate then they shouldn’t, for two key reasons.

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One, Brazil is almost twice the size of Mexico, more than four times the size of Argentina, and 11 times bigger than Chile. It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and pretends to be one of the new leaders of the globalized world.

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It should have more good universities that its neighbors.

Moreover, it needs better universities and more of them if it wants to be a real player in the 21st century and challenge countries like China, India, and South Korea as an emerging powerhouse.

Second, is that the rating hides the true place of Latin American universities on the world list. That position is hardly encouraging for the region’s higher learning centers. Latin American universities lag their developing world rivals by a large margin.

There are no Latin American universities in the top 200 and no Brazilians in the top 250. Other rankings list show similar patterns.

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In this list, the top-rated UNAM comes in 221st overall (down from 190th place last year). The three best Brazilian institutions are Universidade de São Paulo in 254th place, falling from 207th place last year; Universidade Estadual de Campinas in 292nd position, up three places over the year; and the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in 381st, up two spots from last year.

If there is any solace it is that Brazil’s best universities realize they have to do better. Most, if not all, top institutions are signing exchange deals to bring more foreign students to town and to send their own people abroad for experience. Many, like Unicamp, are also trying to lure teaching talent, as this recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education explains.

But it is a long and gradual process. Don't break out the piñata just yet.

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[Editor's note: The original headline for this article misrepresented the content of the story.]