The difficulties of reforming higher education in Chile

  By Maria José Lemaître, Centro Interuniversitario de Desarrollo (CINDA), Executive Director


A long-awaited proposal to reform higher education meets strong opposition, from stakeholders and policymakers.

As Chilean voters went to the polls in the 2013 general election, there was a clear consensus across society about the need to reform higher education (HE). Michelle Bachelet was elected with the promise to address the main issues: the recognition of HE as a social right, rather than a consumer good; the strengthening of public HE, which operated under a private approach with very limited public funding; the need to improve the accountability and quality of HE offerings; and most urgently, to reduce the financial burden on undergraduate students. 

The government embarked on an ambitious plan to collect opinions: commissions were formed, representatives from many different institutions and associations were consulted, and an Advisory Council was appointed. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education worked silently and secretively in preparing the reform. After much delay, it was finally introduced on 4 July 2016. It was strongly criticized from all possible fronts for ignoring the realities of a highly diversified, massive, HE system, for being based on an arbitrary diagnosis, which seemed designed to justify certain measures, rather than to paint an accurate picture of its strengths and weaknesses, and for ignoring the opinions of experts and the participants in the consultation process. 

Earlier, in May 2015, with the President’s popularity systematically declining, her advisors decided to advance a campaign promise: all students in the bottom 50 per cent of income distribution would be able to study without paying tuition. Universities could freely adhere to the scheme, but technical and vocational schools were excluded (however, they are now eligible, provided they are truly organized as non-profit organizations). 

The promise of free tuition profoundly impacted the contents of the reform: free tuition inevitably translated into a significant gap between the income received from the government and the normal institutional budget, putting higher education institutions (HEI) in financial risk. As a result, the debate moved from the conceptual aspects of the reform to a corporate defence of institutional interests, resulting in a fragmented higher education sector and a myriad of interest groups. 

HE reform is now stalled before parliament. Furthermore, the current draft falls short on addressing the main challenges related to accountability and the quality and affordability of HE. Most of the HE system in Chile is still under market regulation and while the government has promised to address in a different proposal the issues related to the country’s public universities, nothing has happened – and time is running out. The much contested quality assurance mechanism is being kept without any major changes. Free tuition is perhaps the exception, but it is argued that the financial burden it imposes on institutions jeopardizes the goal of improved quality, which was one of the reform’s key objectives.

The Ministry of Education introduced some revisions to the proposed reform. However, there has been little progress and the changes appear to pacify specific interest groups rather than to respond to the needs of the higher education system. Higher education reform in Chile faced a rare window of opportunity, yet it was slammed shut due to the inept handling of the process.


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