The challenges of higher education in Chile

Education should impart knowledge and skills as well as attitudes and values. Undeniably, there are other important objectives in education. There is not much sense in working for more equitable access or a higher retention rate if the kind of education being offered is not adequately preparing students or giving them the tools they need for the labour market.

Higher education policy should have several main objectives: quality, access, funding and research policies.


There are three fundamental issues regarding education quality: accreditation, supervision and information. For Chile, which has been in an education crisis for some time, there is much that needs improving.

The national system of accreditation must be improved, powers conferred to accreditation agencies should be clarified, greater controls for conflicts of interest should be introduced and the supervision of the accreditation processes strengthened.

In the case of supervision, the system should establish new regulations that stipulate and introduce greater requirements and provide authorities with the facilities they need to ensure legal stipulations are observed. To allow effective supervision to occur there must be an institutional framework and the necessary resources to support such supervision.

A key instrument needed to foster quality is providing prospective students with the best possible information they need to make good choices. Quality assurance should include the mandatory publication of information addressing questions such as evaluation by students and teaching quality, surveys of the student experience and next destination statistics.


Access is as important as quality and in the Chilean system of education, where access is grossly unfair, we must work towards making it more equitable. Complementing the University Admission Test, or PSU, with other variables such as students’ high school class ranking, would certainly help in this direction.


Funding is an important aspect of higher education and is directly related to access and to the strengthening of institutions.

State Direct Support to Chilean universities needs to be adjusted. This support – given to universities that make important contributions to the country – is essential for developing the research Chile needs and for carrying out community outreach activities. Funding for institutions has dropped significantly due to lack of budgetary adjustment.

The state provides scholarships for the first part of a university career to cover the cost of tuition fees and thus prevent students from having to make up for the shortfall from their own funds. For the remaining 40% of the degree there are loans, with lower interest rates than in the past.

Institutional framework
The higher education system needs to strengthen its institutional framework. The creation of a Sub-secretary of Education and Superintendence should stop institutions from profiteering and should provide objective information to applicants.

Apart from its historical criteria, this body should group public-oriented universities that, given their contribution to the country in the areas of research and teaching, should be eligible to receive state financial support.


In this ever-changing and globally connected world, science and technology are essential. To develop advanced human capital we should work to create mechanisms to promote institutional partnerships.

Today, most research in Chile is carried out by five or six universities. There is potential for collaboration. The creation of world-class university centres with cutting-edge technological and scientific equipment and a team-working culture is the answer, and the state should contribute funds to encourage this type of venture.

It is also important for the state to increase financial support for postgraduate scholarships.

For Chile to be more innovative, public expenditure on research should expand – Chile spends only 0.4% of gross domestic product on research and development, significantly less than that spent by OECD member countries, who on average allocate over 2.3%.

The challenge for universities is to stimulate basic and applied research and to work towards linking applied research with the country’s needs and opportunities. At the same time, mechanisms should be created to transfer new knowledge to industry and society as quickly as possible.

Student participation

Student participation is also relevant. Although each institution is free to choose the system of governance that best represents it, the participation of faculty, students and employees in voting on issues such as the hiring of faculty, development of academic projects, budget, infrastructure and investments and so on is not the right way to go.

Technical higher education

Technical higher education accounts for 50% of students in Chile’s post-school system. The contribution technical education makes to society is very important, but also very different from that of universities.

While universities should focus on scientific research and professional preparation in academic disciplines, technical education should centre on equipping students with the right skills and competencies for the labour market.

It is very important that we work towards integrating the different levels and types of education.


In conclusion, Chilean institutions should work towards modifying undergraduate curricula, and providing more flexible, integrated and interdisciplinary programmes where the arts and humanities are highly valued.

Different education levels should be integrated, facilitating the progression from technical to professional education, as well as from undergraduate to postgraduate studies.

Universities should contribute to the country´s development. In research, for example, universities should be centres for new knowledge, and the state and private sector should invest in arts, science, technology, humanities and social sciences, allowing for the more harmonious development of society.

This will result in an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional type of higher education that is focused on meeting society’s needs. This commitment to society means strengthening university ties with different stakeholders, such as government, civil society and the private sector.

These proposals will help Chile to advance towards a higher education system that is better adapted to people’s – and the country’s – needs.

We must start by focusing on quality, access and funding, and making the necessary changes to the institutional framework of higher education. Only then will we be able to say that we are going in the right direction and that we are taking appropriate action.

The discussion about higher education must centre on individuals, and their well-being and development. If not, the result will be a selfish and utilitarian type of higher education concerned only with form and profit instead of with substance, which is the education of the whole human being.

* Ignacio Sánchez is president of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, Chile.