Quality assurance in higher education – Road forward

In the past two decades Chilean higher education has experienced a dramatic increase in student numbers and rapid growth in the range of institutions and the programmes they offer. Moreover, students or their families have to directly pay a substantial share of tuition fees for any of the three kinds of higher education institutions in the country – universities, professional institutes and technical training centres.

Chilean society remains highly unequal in economic and social terms, and numerous reports suggest that students are not receiving value for the money that they pay in terms of quality. In fact, the three kinds of higher education institutions differ significantly in terms of quality, as has been evidenced by the accreditation process in recent times.

The process of quality assurance so far

The quality assurance system was established in its current form in 2006 by Law 20.129.

According to the law, the system is composed of the Ministry of Education’s Higher Education Division, the National Education Council and the National Accreditation Commission, or CNA.

Accreditation agencies and higher education institutions are not mentioned in the law as being part of the system. The system as a whole is known as the National Quality Assurance System for Higher Education, or SINAC-ES.

However, the system has not worked as intended due to weaknesses in the law, the absence of a national vision for the development of higher education, a failure to build a culture of quality aimed at continuous improvement, the limited leadership role played by the minister of education and a low level of financial support.

Furthermore, the legislation established that accredited higher education institutions would receive public funds through loans provided by the government to students whose families could not afford to pay the fees.

This created a perverse incentive for some institutions to get more money out of the state, which has become an even greater concern in the light of the institutional weakness discovered in the accreditation commission three years ago.

Public confidence

The CNA has been under new management since 2012, a move that aimed to inspire trust and regain the public’s confidence in its judgments.

The commission has increased the transparency of accreditation decisions, approved more suitable criteria for technical training centres and strengthened the pool of peer reviewers, among other advances. However, a lack of confidence in the system on the part of students, institutions and wider society has continued.

The previous government sent a bill to Congress proposing changes to the quality assurance system in December 2012.

Among other changes, the bill outlined plans to eliminate the CNA and transform it into a national agency responsible for the compulsory accreditation of all higher education institutions, and a stronger body with greater power to regulate conflicts of interest, establish accreditation standards and impose penalties on institutions that fail to meet those standards.

Quality assurance in turbulent times

The current government, which took office in March 2014, has initiated structural education reforms across all levels of education.

Regarding higher education, the government recently decided to remove the quality assurance bill from Congress, arguing that the proposals prioritised market concerns over social concerns.

The expectation that the operation of a relatively free market in higher education would produce good outcomes is changing rapidly. However, it is not yet clear how the current government’s vision will be established in practice in terms of a new legal body or how it will be expressed in terms of quality.

Supporters of the reforms are demanding ‘free and quality education’ in protest marches, but a precise definition of what is to be considered as quality education, or how this can be provided under a free higher education system, has yet to be explained.

In order to contribute to the debate about the new system of quality assurance of higher education in Chile, I will outline some issues that in my opinion should be taken in account.

The new bill should include minimum quality standards for accreditation that will be applied to institutions. The current lack of minimum quality standards reduces transparency and understanding of accreditation decisions.

Similarly, a strong quality culture should be promoted, with a focus on outcomes, and we should move towards the internationalisation of the accreditation process and strengthening of the current information system managed by the Ministry of Education.

Moreover, policy-makers should consider setting up an effective coordination mechanism between the different actors in the quality assurance system and create a new national agency whose board does not have a corporate structure so as to assure independence and confidence in the system.

The national agency’s members must have academic credibility and display a deep respect for institutions’ academic missions.

Other necessary mechanisms include the development of professional capabilities, the inclusion of foreign peer reviews in the visiting committee and the regulation of institutions’ veto powers over the visiting committee’s members.

There is another highly important issue that is related to accreditation agencies. I am convinced of the need to ensure a diverse range of options, even including international agencies.

Nevertheless, I believe that modifications to the relationship between these agencies and higher education institutions are required, as well as strengthening the periodic supervision of quality assurance mechanisms.

Regarding accreditation decisions made by the national agency; these should be granted based on whether or not the institution attains minimum quality standards, which would introduce a positive dynamic of continuous improvement.

Provisional accreditation could also be awarded in exceptional cases only. In addition, accreditation must be mandatory, periodic and strong penalties should be imposed on higher education institutions as a result of non-accreditation.

Finally, it is vital that some fundamental changes be included in the new law on quality assurance, such as the introduction of new mechanisms and a significant redesign of some of the current mechanisms.

All of this must be articulated as part of a broader policy context as a national vision for the development of higher education.

* Carlos Olivares is a senior higher education consultant. He was formerly education specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank and served as professor and researcher at the University of Talca and the University of Santiago in Chile. He also held positions in the top administration in three universities in Chile. The views expressed here are personal. Email: