Start of free tuition opens a Pandora’s box

Thousands of students staged a march on 26 May against the way Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s campaign promise of free higher education for all will start to take shape.

The President announced that starting next year free higher education will be available for university and technical college students from the lowest three income quintiles.

So far, so good. But the tuition-free higher education policy’s small print says something else: that only around 264,000 of the poorest students, out of a total of 390,000 in that income bracket, will benefit. In all, there are 1.12 million higher education students in Chile.

The long-awaited launch by the President on 21 May of free tuition for higher education has therefore triggered a storm in all quarters, including in universities and political parties of left, right and centre.

Free tuition will apply only to the poorest students from the so-called traditional universities – 16 public and 9 private universities that are members of the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities – CRUCH, as its Spanish acronym is known. Thus, 158,000 students belonging to the lowest three income quintiles enrolled at 35 private universities created after 1981 are excluded.

Those studying at professional institutes and technical colleges won’t have to pay if they attend non-profit and accredited schools. Currently, only 101 of the professional institutes and technical colleges are non-profit and only half are accredited, meaning that the benefit will apply to only 60,000 of roughly 500,000 students.

Around 60% of Chilean higher education students get grants or government-backed loans but these cover, on average, 85% of the ‘reference fees’ set by the Ministry of Education.

“Granting free university education only for students from traditional universities is clearly an injustice,” wrote Carlos Peña, rector of Diego Portales University, a reputed private universities, in a 26 May column in the daily El Mercurio.

“It does not seem reasonable that a government bent on levelling people’s abilities mistreats some of them, who are no different from those that receive the benefit.”

Peña is one of many private university rectors who have complained loudly for being excluded from free tuition.

Partial coverage is temporary

Education Minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre explains that the partial coverage is a temporary measure. He has said repeatedly that in 2018 all institutions that meet criteria set by the government will be covered.

He also argues that the money is not there this year to fulfil Bachelet’s promise of free tuition for all higher education institutions as revenue from the 27% company tax hike passed in early 2015 to pay for the educational reform – the government’s chief electoral plank – will come in gradually.

He has not admitted, though, that the sum the government expected to collect from the new tax may fall short. Chile’s economy has been under-performing due to drops in the price of copper, the country’s main export, and in new investments.

Interviewed by Radio Cooperativa, Eyzaguirre added that CRUCH universities were selected first “because they are well controlled, they do not make profits, their fees are closer to the ‘reference fees’, the Comptroller General monitors them, and they are a State responsibility”.

His arguments opened a Pandora’s box – not least because universities, unlike many but not all of the private institutions and technical colleges, are forbidden by law to make profits.

“I would tell the Minister that I do not have profits, I do not charge exorbitant fees and still I am excluded,” retorted Father Fernando Montes, rector of the Jesuit university Universidad Alberto Hurtado, via the online news service Emol on 26 May.

“If there are universities that make profits, punish them, inspect them but don’t punish those that… comply with all the [pre]requisites,” he added, warning that next year “could be brutal for universities that were excluded”.

The way the debate seems to be heading is to set criteria for selection for private universities, which Rector Peña has admitted are “hugely deregulated”.

Minister Eyzaguirre is proposing to postpone discussion on the criteria required until the government tables its higher education reform law later this year.

“But for now we have to take the first step because people cannot wait any longer,” he said.