Nothing remotely resembling a university existed in the New World before Europeans arrived and settled there. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, numerous universities and other institutions of higher education could be found in North, Central and South America. They had not been invented de novo; they were implants from the European university tradition and its stocks.
The new foundations modeled their charters mainly on that of the University of Salamanca, the oldest and most venerable Spanish university. The curriculum of smaller universities was confined to the artes, a kind of basic studies, and Catholic theology (plus church law). A leading role was assumed by the gradually evolving full universities which additionally offered courses in medicine and jurisprudence, thus comprising all four classic faculties. The influential first universities were founded in the colonial centers Lima, Mexico City and Santo Domingo. When it became apparent that the vast distances of the Spanish realm required a greater geographical spread of universities, they contributed to the creation of further foundations.
A key role in the development of the university system was played by the Catholic orders, especially by the Jesuits, but also the Dominicans and Augustinians. The founding and operation of most universities resulted from the – usually local – initiative of one of these orders, which sometimes quarreled openly over the control of the campus and the curriculum. The (temporary) dissolution of the Jesuit order in the late 18th century proved to be a major setback for the university landscape in Latin America, several of the suppressed Jesuit universities were reopened only decades later.
The successful export of the university, a genuine European creation, to another continent demonstrated its "extraordinary effectiveness and adaptability" as the highest educational institution and marked the beginning of its universal adoption in the modern age (see also List of the oldest universities). Yet there is no denying that at the end of the colonial era the intellectual and academic life in the younger colonial colleges of the British territories appeared more vital. Nevertheless, the Spanish colonial universities fulfilled their primary task, the education of the clerical and secular colonial elite, and could thus assume an important function in aiding the development of the young republics after the separation from the motherland.
In PortugueseBrazil, by contrast, no university existed far beyond the colonial period (the first was established as late as 1912 in Curitiba as University of Paraná). The lower local demand for theological and legal specialists was largely met by Jesuit colegios, while students aspiring to higher education had to take up studies overseas at the University of Coimbra. Instead of universities for general studies, the Portuguese favored the creation of professional academies to respond to the local needs of technicians and skilled professionals, including creating the first school of higher studies in engineering of the Americas.
Jílek, Jubor (ed.): "Historical Compendium of European Universities/Répertoire Historique des Universités Européennes", Standing Conference of Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of the European Universities (CRE), Geneva 1984