Higher education reform project is failing the test

Confusion. Uncertainty. Disorientation. These are just some of the epithets employed by academics, students and higher education specialists to describe the government’s toing and froing regarding the awaited higher education reform.

The government announced on 3 August that free education for some students would start in 2016. Because of the financial constraints caused by the slump in copper prices, Chile’s main commodity export, the benefit would only apply to the poorest 50% of students, down from the 60% poorest announced by President Michelle Bachelet on 21 May, as reported by University World News.

The Ministry of Education estimates that the revision downwards means that around 234,000 students – 20% of those in higher education – will now qualify, compared to around 324,000 originally. The estimated cost to the government will be between US$300 million and US$400 million a year, on top of the US$858 million it spends annually on scholarships and student credits.

Bachelet’s original offer only applied to students enrolled in any one of the 25 universities that make up the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities, or CRUCH, and in eight not-for-profit technical institutions.

But rocked by criticisms that 146,000 students in the same income bracket were left out, on 3 August she said that free tuition would now be extended to non-CRUCH universities, provided these universities have been accredited for over four years, are not for profit and have at least one member of staff or student in any advisory or decision-making body.

According to the Centre for Investigative Journalism, or CIPER, only three universities with a total of 6,000 students meet these requirements.

Early start of free tuition in the dock

The latest announcement increased the feeling that improvisation was the name of the game. The posting on the Education Ministry’s website of a document setting out new qualifying conditions for free tuition reinforced the perception that the free tuition policy has not been well thought through.

Education Minister Adriana Delpiano’s apology that the document had been posted by mistake did not help matters.

Criticisms have also rained down over the decision to make a start to free tuition in higher education in 2016.

Only the Consortium of State Universities, as is to be expected, is backing the government’s decision to bring free tuition forward – the government had committed to introduce it in 2018.

The universities, politicians, students and education experts that are against it argue that the financing system is part and parcel of the higher education reform bill and should not be dealt with separately.

The higher education reform bill will only be sent to parliament in December, a year later than promised.

“Bringing forward free tuition in the absence of a regulatory framework is a mistake,” says Giorgio Jackson, a deputy for the district of Santiago and ex-student leader. “A new higher education system must be established first; we must regulate it, assure its quality and pertinence and only then see how to finance the system we want in a new way.”

Valentina Saavedra, president of the Universidad de Chile Student Federation, struck a similar note in an interview with her university’s newspaper: “The key to any structural reform is to consider which are the principles… in which way will each of the institutions be transformed and then decide how to finance it,” said Saavedra.

The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, one of the two largest in the country and a member of CRUCH, is eligible for free tuition in 2016. But Ignacio Sánchez, its rector, has told the press that his university will not opt for the free tuition offer if “the criteria [for doing so] are not clarified”. These include whether the conditions for joining the free tuition system will affect university autonomy and how the amounts the university receives for each eligible student will be determined.

New advisory council

The establishment last month by the Ministry of Education of an advisory council for the higher education reforms composed of education experts failed to calm the waters. There have been many reproaches about the composition of the council and its undefined mandate.

In the rarefied climate surrounding the higher education reform project – the most important promise of Bachelet’s government – around 80,000 students staged a march on 27 August in downtown Santiago.

The students were complaining about the “great improvisation” and delays of the higher education reform and to reaffirm once more their rejection of a market-led education.