Bribery and laundering charges reveal accreditation mess

The former president of Chile’s National Accreditation Commission (NCA) and two former university rectors were jailed on 1 December on charges of bribery and money laundering. They will spend at least six months in prison, which is how long the Public Prosecution Office has said it will take to investigate the charges.

Prosecutor Carlos Gajardo has calculated that former NCA President Luis Eugenio Díaz received around US$620,000 from 2009-11 from several universities that were seeking accreditation.

Former rectors Héctor Zúñiga from Universidad del Mar and Angel Maulén from Universidad Pedro de Valdivia are accused of bribing Díaz. Four other universities may have done the same, according to the public prosecutor.

Several incriminating emails show Díaz tipping off universities on whom to appoint as assessor and sending them confidential reports and previews on how the evaluation process was progressing.

He went so far as to ask the rector of Universidad SEK to hire him and a colleague “with the same pay as other directors".

Díaz assured him: “This is absolutely compatible with my post at NCA.”

In a bid to recuperate at least part of US$12.5 million paid by the government to six universities under investigation last year, Education Minister Harald Beyer asked public prosecutors last week to hand over to the State Defence Council – which takes legal actions on the government’s behalf – all the information gathered so far.

Beyer’s request came a few days after the General Comptroller's Office released a damning 50-page report on the NCA.

Irregularities mentioned in the report include:
  • • Keeping courses accredited without having assessed them but charging for the assessment.
  • • Not having manuals on accreditation procedures.
  • • Leaking decisions to the parties concerned.
The report also warned about potential conflicts of interest “because there are links between the accrediting agencies…and the education-imparting institutions”.

An OECD analysis on accreditation in Chile was published on 28 November. It concluded that the national system for quality assurance in education had worked badly because it had a poor legislative structure, inadequate resources and lacked a shared vision of what it intended to achieve.

It said the system “requires profound changes” to, among other things, ensure minimum standards, take the existing institutional diversity into account and improve decision-making transparency.

The OECD’s report was requested by the government as an amendment to a new law that changes the existing accreditation system. Beyer said it would be tabled in the senate in mid-December.

The changes, said Beyer, would include mandatory accreditation, appointments by a government body (currently designated by various institutions) and accrediting higher education bodies for a minimum of six years – instead of one year, as is the case now.

Unaccredited institutions will not be able to award degrees, and international assessment agencies will be called in; currently, assessment is carried out by private Chilean entities.

Beyer has denied any responsibility for the scandal. But those who are calling him to account point out that initial charges for illegal profiteering in several universities were made last January. A congress committee then ratified them but the minister had washed his hands of the matter.

“I think that this education minister lives in Greenland and that, regrettably, he is deaf, he is dumb and incompetent,” said Alejandra Sepulveda, who led the congressional inquiry.

Those universities under investigation may run into serious problems even if they are not found guilty. Beyer advised students applying for places in 2013 to avoid those institutions that may lose their accreditation if the charges against them are true.

In the meantime, the 18,000 students of Universidad de Mar – whose closure was demanded by the government in October for grave financial and academic problems – have been given help by congress to change universities.