Free tuition for students from 50% poorest families

As the Chilean saying goes, this New Year arrived with a bread loaf under its arm for the almost 200,000 students that will be attending university for free at the start of the new academic year this March.

The law granting free education to half of the students from the 50% poorest families was approved by both Houses of Parliament on 23 December by 92 votes in favour, two against and one abstention.

“Tuition-free university education will make Chile a more just and supportive country for all,” said President of Chile Michelle Bachelet on December 28 during a breakfast with students who obtained the highest scores in the national university admission test.

Chile’s vocal student movement has been campaigning for an overhaul of the world’s fourth most expensive market-based university system, instituted in 1981 by Pinochet’s military dictatorship, 76% of which was financed by Chilean families.

After signing the new law, Bachelet emphasised that “the fight for free, high-quality education has been given a big boost today, but it is one development and not the end by any means”.

Her political coalition, she promised, will go on fighting so that “eventually we [will] have a truly inclusive educational system, one where an individual’s education will depend on their intelligence and work and not the size of their family’s bank account”.

Her campaign promise was to provide free tuition to students from the 70% poorest families by the end of her term of office in 2018 but Chile’s economic slowdown forced the government to scale it back.

The goal of achieving free higher education for all is also in doubt.

Eligibility rules

In this first stage, 178,104 students – 27.5% of all university students, with a per capita family income of US$221 per month or less – will study for free, with no academic conditions attached for the duration of their studies if they register in one of 30 universities.

These include the 25 public and traditional private universities that make up the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities, or CRUCH, plus five private universities funded after 1981 that have four years’ accreditation, are controlled by individuals or not-for-profit entities and applied for free tuition (Alberto Hurtado, Diego Portales, Autónoma, Católica Cardenal Silva Henríquez and Finis Terrae).

Other four private universities that also qualify will not be joining in. Spokesmen for Los Andes and Adolfo Ibáñez universities said they may do so once the educational reform, now expected to be tabled in Parliament in March, has been approved, hopefully by the end of this year.

An extra reason for excluding themselves is that they would have had to pay out of their own pockets the difference between the reference tuition fee set by the Ministry of Education and their actual fee.

Students without access to free university education will still be able to obtain scholarships and student loans.

Most professional learning institutes (IPs) and technical training centres (CFTs) were excluded (the former offer four-year programmes leading to a professional degree and the latter a technical certificate in areas such as agriculture and business administration after two years of study). They were promised accession in three more years once they become non-profit, however.

In the meantime, students of any of 14 IPs and CFTs that are already not-for-profit will be receiving improved government scholarships.

Reform postponed

The road to the free tuition law has been so chequered – on 10 December an earlier version was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal because it discriminated between public and private universities – that it has pushed back Bachelet’s tabling of the higher education reform proposal, originally promised for 31 December.

Its tabling has been postponed in order to allow for more time to discuss the text with all those concerned, including students, setting out the new institutional and regulatory higher education framework that should last for the next four or five decades.

Discussion has already started about its ruling principles.

Bachelet believes education should become “a social good”. Carlos Peña, the influential rector of private university Diego Portales, says “private and public universities, religious or lay, should go back to being primarily universities that only are such if they are geared towards the public good”.

*This article was corrected on 23 January. The original article said tuition would be free for students from the 50% poorest families. The corrected version says tuition will be free for half of the students from the 50% poorest families.