Solutions needed for higher education quality crisis

There are three sorts of tertiary education institutions in Chile: universities, professional institutes and technical training centres. Each one grants different qualifications: academic, professional or technical.

Universities can grant all three kinds of qualifications, while the institutes award professional and technical qualifications and technical training centres are only allowed to provide technical programmes.

By law, all universities have non-profit status. Among the universities, of which there are 59 in total, there is a historical division between CRUCH (25) and non-CRUCH institutions (34). CRUCH institutions receive public subsidies for their operations. There are 45 professional institutes and 63 technical training centres.

Quality and skills have become issues

The issue of quality assurance in the tertiary education system has become a public concern as a consequence of the scandal in which the president of the National Accreditation Commission and at least two chancellors of private universities were arrested and accused of money laundering, bribery and accepting kickbacks.

However, there are other important problems in the Chilean tertiary education sector, such as its governance and the fact that several tertiary institutions are rated below international standards in many disciplines and are therefore producing graduates that are not needed in the job market.

Many of them have simply not kept up with the rapid changes that have taken place in the world in recent years. Of the several thousand courses offered by different institutions, how many are really necessary?

In recent decades, there has been much progress in most of the tertiary education sector. However, this has been aimed at expansion, without achieving quality improvement.

This situation makes little sense. There is no clear correlation between the needs of the job market and what graduates offer. Who can guarantee that graduates really have all the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to perform successfully in new labour markets?

The whole system is unnecessarily rigid and courses are very inflexible in structure, with no option for students to make changes along the way. This increases drop-out rates and levels of disappointment.

Moreover, courses are extremely – and unjustifiably – long. It would be more logical to have undergraduate courses of fewer years’ duration and higher quality postgraduate programmes. Institutions continue to teach the same professional degrees they have offered for the past century.

I believe that the tertiary education system is out of tune with the needs of the job market and that it would be very interesting to obtain current information from corporate recruiters about, for example, whether Chilean graduates are employable or not, considering the knowledge and skills they have acquired.

Of course, there is significant diversity within tertiary institutions and that is positive. But I think more universities, professional institutes and technical training centres are needed.

Need to improve standards and accreditation

It is crucial to raise teaching standards and strengthen the undergraduate and postgraduate course accreditation process. Despite what some people think, good institutional accreditation is not enough.

A high quality student experience should provide graduates with essential generic basic skills such as adaptability, creativity, critical thinking and citizenship, in addition to comprehensive understanding of their disciplines and sufficient knowledge to help reduce the digital divide.

It is also crucial for Chile’s future development that its new quality assurance structures and processes be trusted both nationally and internationally. This is a key role of the state.

However, beyond formal quality assurance measures, the quality of the teaching and engagement of academic staff must be reviewed on an ongoing basis in all institutions, as part of a robust management framework. Higher education results, from the perspective of students and employers alike, should be made publicly available.

According to the Ministry of Education, there were 70,248 academics teaching 1,068,263 students in the country in 2011. This figure amounts to 15 students per teacher, which is reasonable.

Nevertheless, when this figure is analysed in detail, it is revealed that only 9% of academics held a PhD – equivalent to 6,480 faculty – 19% held a masters degree, and 5% a medical or dentistry speciality, while over 60% had only an undergraduate diploma and 7% were technicians or had no degree. There is no information on postdoctoral qualifications.

By comparison, Brazil increased its number of teachers with PhDs from 1,000 in 1990 to 12,000 in 2012.

Firstly this means that the best research in science, technology and innovation is restricted to very few institutions, where the critical mass exists to do it. Secondly, it throws the quality of teaching and learning into doubt in a considerable number of institutions.

Seeking new solutions

I think it is well worth exploring new ways of introducing flexibility into Chile's institutions in order to attract high quality faculty by offering competitive salaries, encouraging cutting-edge research and supporting and acknowledging talent.

Diverse authors across the world have pointed out that tertiary education plays a pivotal role in economic development. Chile shows successful macro-economic figures in comparison with other countries in the region.

However, this growth is heavily based on commodities and there is also a clear need for clean and environmentally friendly energy sources in the country to support future development.

Some people argue that Chile is becoming a developed country because its gross domestic product is very close to the United States’ US$20,000 per capita earnings. I wonder how long we will keep this status without laying a solid foundation for growth.

Chile does not have a national strategy for tertiary education, nor does it have one for science, technology and innovation for the next 15 years. Unfortunately, as a country Chile tends to be reactionary rather than proactive, regardless of the party in government.

Tertiary education is a powerful tool for the nation’s technological and economic advancement. It can fulfil the aspirations of the young, who have shown restlessness and are seeking direction.

Thus far, no-one has been able to provide anything more than piecemeal solutions that have not touched the heart of the problem.

* Carlos Olivares is a senior higher education consultant and served as a professor and researcher at 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: