Scandal-plagued higher education sector gets new minister

Carolina Schmidt was appointed Chile’s new education minister last Monday and will face a formidable challenge despite her impressive credentials. On Thursday, student protests ended in violent clashes with police.

Former minister Harald Beyer was recently impeached by the Senate and banned from public office for five years.

Schmidt was the best-rated cabinet minister in her former job as head of the National Women’s Service, but the education portfolio is a political hot potato and there are contested draft bills to get through parliament.

Long-standing public anger against Chile’s education sector has brought students and their families into the streets on numerous occasions since 2011, demanding free education and an end to for-profit universities. A 150,000-strong student march on 11 April appeared to all but seal Beyer’s fate.

Beyer was impeached by the Senate seven days later, in a 20-18 vote, for “having failed to investigate complaints against universities allegedly engaged in profit-making”. The Chamber of Deputies had already found him guilty.

President Sebastián Piñera described Beyer's impeachment as “unjust”. Beyer “had done more than any other [education] minister before him,” the president said.

Piñera’s supporters accused opposition deputies and senators of having acted for political reasons in order to win the student vote, ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in November at which education will be a key campaign issue.

The student movement has already announced plans to take to the streets often in this election year.

Last Thursday’s demonstration in the capital, organised by the Student Federation of Private Universities (Mesup) and also involving school pupil federations and worker unions, degenerated into violence after police tried to stop protestors from marching to the Education Ministry, The Santiago Times reported.

Eventually a small group was allowed to deliver a letter to newly-ensconced Schmidt. Mesup spokesperson Manuel Erazo said the group wants fundamental reform, not just “new faces”, the newspaper reported.

“Whoever is seated in ‘La Moneda’ [Chile’s executive office] will face more demonstrations if he or she is not willing to implement policies supported by the majority,” said Andrés Fielbaum, head of the student federation of Universidad de Chile, the country’s oldest and largest university.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, expected to win the November polls, has already promised structural reforms in education to “improve quality, end segregation and profit-making and give institutions adequate supervisory powers”.

“Education and public resources for education cannot become a business,” she said this month when introducing her education team.

However, Bachelet and the parties that back her, despite their politics sitting to the left of the current administration, are heavily criticised by students and ruling politicians for having also failed to improve the country’s ailing education system during their 20 years in power.

“Beyer cannot be expected to do what ministers in previous governments had not done. Nor should he be made responsible for parliament’s failure to pass regulations to strengthen the ministry’s abilities to verify whether some private universities were making profits,” declared Enrique Barros, Beyer’s defence lawyer

Opposition politicians retorted that Beyer did in fact have sufficient enforcement powers.

“The [education] ministry has the powers to monitor, and if he has not used them, he is not doing his duty,” said Senate President Jorge Pizarro during the impeachment hearings.

He was referring to the way Beyer appeared to disregard, and even mock, requests to investigate financial irregularities in specific universities.

The requests were made, among others, by a congressional committee on profit-making in higher education that indicted seven universities, and by four academics from Universidad de Chile.

Deputy Alejandra Sepulveda, who headed the congressional committee and tabled the constitutional accusation against Beyer, said: “Beyer has been negligent for not upholding or following the [non-profit making] law. He has been frivolous and irresponsible…”

The Ministry of Education was forced to take action when a scandal at the National Accreditation Commission (NCA) rocked Chile. As University World News reported, it was revealed that several universities had bribed the then NCA president, Luis Eugenio Díaz, to get accredited.

That same month, Piñera was forced to remove justice minister Teodoro Ribera, who had had dealings with Díaz relating to a private university founded by his family.

Earlier in 2012, the rector of Universidad del Mar resigned in disgust when he discovered that university funds had been diverted to construction companies belonging to its owners.

Beyer shocked students at Universidad del Mar when he said that his ministry could not get involved, advising them to sue the university or lodge a complaint to the national consumer protection service.

The university’s closure was finally approved and its 18,000 students have either been relocated to other universities or will finish their studies before Universidad del Mar closes down for good.

“Beyer was not interested in fighting against profit-making because it is at the heart of the [private universities] system. These universities would not exist if they didn’t make profits,” said sociologist Alberto Mayol.

The bomb dropped by the Universidad del Mar and the NCA scandals appeared to finally force the education ministry to take the issue more seriously. At present, four universities mentioned in the congressional report are under investigation.

Piñera asked Schmidt, his fourth education minister in three years, to speed up the approval of draft bills on a regulatory agency for higher education, a new accreditation system and reform to the financing system for higher education students.

Schmidt's task won’t be easy: the student movement does not like the draft bills and has asked her to withdraw them from parliament. The opposition does not like them either and Beyer’s impeachment has exacerbated the already confrontational political climate.