A challenge to the free market system

2016 will be a challenging year for higher education in Chile. Against all odds, a new reform offering free higher education for the poorest students was submitted and approved by the Chilean parliament. The principle behind this law is the idea of education as a social right.

The government has acknowledged that an inclusive society should offer equal opportunities in accessing quality higher education independently of social class. Access to higher education should depend on merit and effort. However, there are pitfalls aplenty here.

Following the protests led by university students in 2011 during president Sebastián Piñera’s period – which received support from wider society – the opposition candidate for the presidency, Michelle Bachelet, agreed to the students’ demands. Among others, these demands were represented by slogans such as ‘ending the commercialisation of education’, ‘non-profit education’, ‘public education as a right’ and ‘free and quality education for everybody’.

On becoming president in 2014, Bachelet committed her government to a series of educational reforms, including free higher education, one of the most important of the students’ demands.


However, the policy of free higher education has been highly controversial.

In a heated debate, the dominant arguments have been that the policy amounts to a regressive measure since it is unfair to finance higher education through taxes paid by all citizens – including poorer people – who therefore end up subsidising students from wealthier backgrounds, and that the state has many other pressing demands on its finances.

As a result, the Bachelet government recognised that it would not be able to offer free education for everybody, but instead only for half of the students from families among the poorest 50% of the population. This benefit will be open not only to new students but also to older students. Financial resources will be transferred directly to universities to cover the students’ fees.

Who provides free HE?

There was a second phase of the debate since it was not clear which institutions would be permitted to offer free education. Only traditional universities – the so-called ‘CRUCH’ universities, a group of the 25 oldest universities (both state and private) – were to be included in this scheme.

Further, what would happen with non-traditional private universities that teach a large number of the poorer students? Also, professional institutes, or PIs, and centres for technical formation, or CTFs, have a high proportion – more than 50% – of low-income students.

In responding to these points, the government decided that all state universities would subscribe to this scheme. In the case of private universities, their participation would be possible only if they had at least four years of accreditation and were non-profit institutions. PI and CTF institutions remain outside the scheme at the moment.

But the debate is far from over. A new challenge has appeared: how much money should the state transfer to each university – given that tuition fees differ across both institutions and disciplines?

This is perhaps the most difficult issue. The government has established a fixed amount of money to cover students’ fees, an amount that is not always equivalent to the real cost of the undergraduate programme. This means that, in many cases, the financial resources transferring to universities will be insufficient and, therefore, the participating higher education institutions will have to contribute to the cost of their students’ education.

Primary and secondary education

Although this new scheme is promising, further issues need attention. There is a pressing need for a larger set of public policies to rectify the educational distortions created by social class and to offer quality education to the poorest students.

It is not just a matter of access to higher education, but of developing sufficient cultural capital at primary and secondary levels so as to enable students to have access to institutions of quality. Also, more attention is needed regarding the low completion rates of students from poorer backgrounds.

The quality of higher education institutions is a further matter. Following several scandals involving the national system by which higher education institutions are accredited, it is clear that the system needs major improvement. In particular, the accreditation system needs to be reformed so as to include indicators with a special focus on teaching and learning processes.

The implementation of free higher education is opening up a series of large challenges that need to be addressed through longer-term public policies. It is just a first step in doing justice to higher education as a social right; and this principle challenges trends that, worldwide, are advancing the marketisation of higher education. Will other countries follow this policy shift? It remains to be seen.

Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education, or CIAE, University of Chile. She conducts research on the impact of global transformations on the contemporary university and also on university teaching-learning processes.