Universities face tighter controls after financial irregularity scandal

Chile’s higher education sector is facing stiffer regulations after financial irregularities were discovered at Universidad del Mar, one of the country’s largest private universities. And education Minister Harald Beyer will introduce a bill later this year to drastically overhaul the institutional accreditation system.

A judicial enquiry into illegal profiteering by universities has been set up following a report on the subject by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, and a government bill will create a supervisory higher education commission.

“What we have are university businesses, not serious academic endeavours,” said Daniela López, president of the students’ federation of Universidad Central.

Beyer, however, is confident that the government will be able in future to enforce the no-profit law.

“We have weak powers to control the financial and academic decisions of these institutions. The proposed [commission] would strengthen our hand.”

He said the ministry could only act on specific charges, as happened with the accusation against Universidad del Mar for not complying with educational programmes offered and failing to pay salaries.

The problems at Universidad del Mar – which led students to take over the university’s 15 buildings, go on hunger strikes and stage mass demonstrations – have also caused Chile’s accreditation system to come under scrutiny.

In December 2010 Eugenio Díaz, then interim president of the National Accreditation Commission (CNA by its Spanish acronym), certified Universidad del Mar for two years, despite serious reservations about its organisation and resources.

A month later, the university hired Díaz to assist in getting it accredited for longer.

To defuse the scandal that ensued, Beyer asked the CNA to draft a code of ethics and to propose reforms to the accreditation system.

“The accreditation system has lost legitimacy and the trust of most of its stakeholders,” higher education expert José Joaquín Brunner told University World News.

“The corporate-like composition of the CNA makes its decisions seem questionable; its parameters for evaluating institutions are vague and its procedures are weak, burdensome and often bureaucratic.

While institutions and programmes are accredited for up to seven years, private accrediting agencies apply their own yardsticks, resulting in there being no way of telling the difference between, say, one or four years of accreditation.

Agencies tend to provide accreditation even for a minimum period to enable students to apply for state credits or loans.

This will no longer be the case when a new law on student financing, now in parliament, is approved. It restricts financial support to higher education institutions that have been accredited for at least three years.

The government has a preliminary assessment of how to improve accreditation, which includes staffing the CNA with independent experts, measuring educational results (not only processes and inputs), and making accreditation mandatory.

Whether accreditation agencies should apply unified assessment criteria or should be replaced by a single public accreditation agency is still under consideration.

An OECD team of experts will be arriving in Santiago in August to advise on the best course of action.