Time for change in Chilean higher education

I read with interest Cristina González’s perceptive article on higher education in Chile and the dislocations that the highly privatised system of higher education, established during the 1973-90 military government of Augusto Pinochet, has produced in the country – now one of the most economically unequal in Latin America in spite of its growing prosperity.

It also was instructive to see Rubén Covarrubias’s reaction to that article. As director of higher education in the period before the current democratic system, and president of one of the new private universities, Rector Covarrubias is probably concerned about the anti-privatisation sentiment permeating Chilean society at present.

Public opinion of this sort has caused President-elect Michelle Bachelet to promise to eliminate profit-making from higher education when she takes office.

A different perspective

I would like to offer a different perspective, that of the president of a public university that is struggling to provide access to students of modest means.

As such, I would welcome a rebalancing of priorities in the country’s higher education system, for I believe that, as González indicates, Chile has gone too far in the direction of privatisation and that it is time for change.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1981, without any discussion or debate, the military government undertook a reform of higher education based on the premise that education was a marketable good. The idea was that the higher education market would self-regulate, so as to achieve a balance between supply and demand.

Accordingly, new private institutions of higher learning were created, tuition fees were allowed to rise and universities began to compete with one another for students.

This higher education model, however, has not turned out to be the best path towards enhancing the country’s competitiveness, let alone for improving academic quality or enriching the intellectual lives of its citizens.

The success and relevance of a higher education system should not be measured by the economic benefits it produces for those in the education business or by the investment opportunities it offers construction firms, advertising agencies and the like, but rather by the benefits it brings to students, their families and other members of society.

In the last few years, thousands of Chileans have taken to the streets many times, saying that it is high time to eliminate profit in higher education. Although, in theory, universities cannot be for-profit organisations, the law was designed to be circumvented with impunity.

Those who put the current system in place, and those who have enriched themselves by it, reject change with passion, and this conflict came to a head with the recent elections.

Freedom of choice

One of the tenets of the present, heavily privatised, system of higher education is that it offers freedom of choice to students.

But the truth of the matter is that, in Chile, there is no freedom of choice for students, except for those from the wealthier classes. Students with similar levels of talent, but different economic circumstances, have very different opportunities.

Poorer students consistently end up in less good universities and get less good jobs. This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to Chile, but it is particularly acute in this country.

Regional differences compound the problem, since students from the capital region around Santiago have access to many more universities than do those living in the northern or southern parts of the country.

The idea that the current system offers freedom of choice is not supported by the facts, which are that students’ options are severely limited by their personal circumstances. In Chile, geography and social class are destiny.

Coverage, quality and equity

In Chile, over 50% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 go to college. But only 19.1% of the poorest 10% attend college, while 93.3% of the richest 10% do.

In addition, attrition rates are about 50%. So although most Chilean students entering university today are the first generation in their families to do so, many of them never actually graduate.

In addition, the quality of Chilean universities is very uneven, with students from modest backgrounds tending to attend less distinguished institutions of higher learning.

Although, for appearance's sake, there is an accreditation process, this does not guarantee quality in any real sense. In fact, scandals surrounding some of the new private universities make it obvious that the system needs to be drastically reformed.

Final thoughts

Chile should be able to have a system of high quality public higher education. The country can afford it.

The problem lies not in a lack of funds for public higher education, but rather in the many entrenched interests among those profiting from the current system, from investors to academics.

Everyone is making money out of higher education, except students, who are the biggest losers in the present state of affairs.

The Chilean people have said repeatedly that they do not want a higher education system governed by market forces. What they want is affordable, accessible, quality higher education in every region of the country.

Chile has public universities from Arica in the north to Punta Arenas in the south that, if properly funded, could accomplish this.

The choice facing Chile now is whether the country’s financial resources should be used to enrich the owners of private universities and their investors, or to supply public universities with the means of enriching the lives of students, their families and other members of society.

* Emilio Rodríguez-Ponce is rector of the University of Tarapacá and former president of Chile’s Higher Education National Accreditation Commission.