On 21 August students of Universidad de Chile, or UCH, the country’s largest university, staged a sit-in at its headquarters in central Santiago to press for changes to the state universities bill, tabled by the government last June.
They hung up a large banner that read: “Chileans: the education ministry lies”, adorned by some thirty half-filled black balloons symbolising the 'mourning' of state universities if the bill is not modified.
Two days later the UCH rector, academics, students and administrative personnel – 1,000 in all – lit candles at three of the university’s sites. In early August, twice as many had marched to La Moneda, Chile’s seat of government, to deliver a letter about the matter to President Michelle Bachelet.
The state universities bill – whose alleged aim is to strengthen Chile’s 18 state-owned universities – originally formed part of the general higher education reform bill but it was pulled out of the latter for fear that political disagreements over special treatment for state universities would delay its approval.
The government finishes its term in March 2018; it would be a major failure if the educational reform – its main campaign offer – is not approved by then.
A step backwards
The state universities reform bill introduces changes to their governance, institutional system, rules of employment and government financing.
Several state university rectors have declared it a step backwards.
“We are extremely worried that the… proposed bill, instead of focusing on the strategic challenges... of Chilean society, centres on converting them into competitive enterprises under the same – market-based – regulations that changed the face of higher education,” said UCH’s Senate.
A group of prominent artists, intellectuals and academics backed this view. In a public declaration, released on 9 August, they said the bill not only fails to strengthen the state university sector – gravely disadvantaged by the 1981 university reform of the Pinochet dictatorship – but enshrines the privatisation model established at the time.
Specifically, the affected universities say that, as it stands, the project would progressively cut back their core funding, infringe on their autonomy – because it allows the government’s involvement in defining programmes and taking decisions over their assets – and threaten labour conditions of administrative staff.
State universities' demands
State universities are asking for permanent funding not linked, as it is now, to agreements with the government over research and innovation, academic training, quality increases and the like. At present, most of the money they receive from the government is linked to numbers of students, which accounts for the fact that resources for state universities increased by 32.8% from 2011 to 2014 compared to 63% for private universities.
The Consortium of State Universities says a policy is needed to defend and strengthen them against competition from private universities as well as among themselves. It says that current rules disadvantage them because these rules make big demands on them and hardly any on private universities.
A two-minute stop motion video released by the consortium last week represents private universities as a building with neon lights, adorned with a peso sign. Loud music is playing. A popular figure from the game of ‘Monopoly’ exits from the party inside. A voice off affirms that state universities not only produce “professionals for the marketplace” but “citizens” and “seek to overcome the individualistic and competitive vision of higher education, valuing collaboration over competition”.
The video underlines that Chile’s higher education system does not have such a thing as a mixed provision given that, at present, 84% of students are enrolled in private universities and only 16% in the state sector. It adds that last year 48% of students who applied to a state university as their first choice could not be admitted for lack of places.
This is why, the video concludes, a government law must be geared to achieve a balance by increasing state university student numbers.
Heads of private universities were quick to react.
“It does not represent what happens in our country,” said Darcy Fuenzalida, rector of Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María. “We cannot go on favouring state over non-state universities when both contribute to the country’s development.”
Federico Valdés, rector of the Universidad del Desarrollo, said the video is a “bad caricature”.
“I believe it is an attempt to obtain benefits, secure resources and go against what Chilean students want,” he said. “The large majority of world universities are private. We have to copy what is good, not bad.”
Juan Manuel Zolezzi, rector of Universidad de Santiago, a state university, said: “I believe in a mixed system of education, but one where the state fulfils its role of owner and sustainer of its universities.”
Protests achieve results
Public manifestations against the reform bill forced the Chamber of Deputies to postpone the state universities bill hearing, set for 23 August, until the first week in September.
Ennio Vivaldi, UCH’s rector, valued the postponement because it would give more time for dialogue with the government, but other state universities, especially regional ones, spoke against it.
The disagreement lies in the fact that UCH has its own governing system, which includes a university senate where academics, teachers and students participate.
For them the form of governance proposed by the government would be a step back but it would be a step forward for most other public universities.
This specific problem was not addressed by Education Minister Adriana Delpiano, who gave way in view of the unrelenting criticisms of her proposal. She offered to withdraw the changes affecting labour conditions and to modify the governance regime.
The most difficult sticking point remaining is finance. Delpiano has passed the ball to the Finance Ministry but the latter is unlikely to yield given the minimal growth of the economy this year.
In the meantime, senators of the ruling coalition, which has a parliamentary majority, have decided to approve the state universities project only if it is processed in parallel with the general higher education reform bill.
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