Chile faces urgent need for governance reform

Chile has enjoyed an unusual degree of prosperity and stability in the Latin American region, and in areas such as education its success has been remarkable. But there has been broad consensus for some years about the urgent need for education reform, particularly with regard to tertiary education. An initial signal of this need came during the previous government when it was forced to create a commission that brought out a report. That helped to calm the tension, but the conflict remained unresolved.

In 2011, what started as a protest by secondary school students was quickly followed by students enrolled in CRUCH universities. CRUCH is the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities. The current government seems to have underestimated the strength of the student protests and has not taken a proactive position on the need for deep reforms in the sector.

The CRUCH universities are made up of 25 institutions: 16 state universities, and nine private universities that receive some funding from the state. Of all the tertiary institutions in the country, 60 are universities, 45 are professional institutes (IPs) and 69 are technical schooling centres (CFTs).

Beyond the fact that the students have radicalised the conflict by demanding structural reforms, including a new constitution and a new economic model, there is a clear lack of national vision within the government around the development of tertiary education. The very limited leadership role played by the Ministry of Education, particularly during the first stage of the conflict, as well as the partial answers and evident contradictions given by different spokespersons, have all affected the government’s image.

The public, including many university students, government officials and education policy experts, has expressed concern about the sector's quality assurance framework, the unsustainable debt incurred by students and their families and the low level of financial support for tertiary education. However, very little has been heard about Chile's lack of a modern governance structure for public universities. In fact, the government is not even contemplating a new governance structure and regulatory framework.

Public governance

The public governance of higher education in Chile is shared by the Ministry of Education with at least five other government institutions. The Ministry of Education is the main government agency for the regulation and coordination of tertiary education. It is the ministry’s responsibility to propose and evaluate policies, assign resources, evaluate educational development, report the results to the community, study and propose general standards suitable for the sector and oversee their compliance, and grant official recognition to the institutions.

Within the ministry, the main unit responsible for the sector is the higher education division. But the ministry often appears to defer its responsibilities for higher education policy to the CRUCH, which represents only 25 of the 149 tertiary institutions. To compare numbers, CRUCH universities had 282,453 students in 2011, while 732,697 students were enrolled in non-CRUCH institutions.

The greatest problem with the current governance of tertiary education in Chile is its segmentation. The most important manifestation of this segmentation is the historical division between CRUCH and non-CRUCH institutions. This stratifies universities in a way that is unwarranted by their actual activities and performance, and has two main consequences.

First, CRUCH institutions receive public subsidies for their operations and their students enjoy financial and social benefits not received by students enrolled in non-CRUCH universities. Second, CRUCH’s public governance role enables its universities to promote their own interests to the government and influence government policy in a way other universities, IPs or CFTs are not able to.

Governance models

In Chilean tertiary education there are three distinct governance models: one that applies to state universities, another to private universities belonging to CRUCH and a third to other private universities, IPs and CFTs. This model has existed for decades. However, when we take a global view, it is clear that the worldwide economic crisis, high-profile corporate failures and many others issues raise important questions about how the public sector is run.

An improved governance model and process, with greater transparency and accountability, is needed. The old system is not enough, primarily because competitive pressure on both national and international universities has grown.

There are concerns about the need to maintain and protect institutional reputation. There is increased risk involved in leading a university in a changing environment. Consequently, it is a challenge to take major decisions quickly and at the right time, which is not an easy fit with traditional university processes.

Chile's tertiary system is not exempt from this reality. All these elements, together with the expansion of tertiary education, are changing university governance and management.

When we analyse the different boards of the state-owned universities, we observe that many of them are run completely separately from the social environment in which they are based and lack a strategic plan linked to national goals. If they were to effectively address these problems, they would, as public institutions, gain more credibility beyond the rhetoric of their public statements.

However, their main task at the moment is the oversight of administrative rules and regulations.

It is vital that governance be differentiated from management, that reputational risk, innovation and competitiveness be balanced correctly and that oversight of effective academic governance be improved, including the setting of quality standards.

Also important is for government to use its authority to nominate the majority of institutions' board members. It is difficult for institutions to recruit board members (especially external ones) with appropriate expertise and a true desire to properly fulfil their role. Another challenge is the need for boards to have access to high-quality information.

International developments in higher education governance show the move towards a different sort of board that is less concerned with oversight and more with strategy, institutional performance and building reputation.

Finally, under a modern and effective governance model, from time to time the board must justify its value before the educational community and the stakeholders. It is this accountability role that gives the boards their added value. But such changes represent a huge challenge for policy-makers in Chile.

* Carlos Olivares is a senior higher education consultant and served as professor and researcher in the University of Talca and the University of Antofagasta in Chile. He also held positions in the top administration in three universities in Chile. The views expressed here are personal. E-mail: