University system improves but grave problems remain

The quality of Chile’s university system is improving, according to two rankings released recently. Many problems remain however, which critics say are not being addressed by the government’s higher education reform now under discussion.

An Analysis of the Quality Ranking of Chilean Universities 2016, published on 24 November by Universitas: Grupo de Estudios Avanzados en Educación Superior, a Chilean think tank on higher education since 2012, reveals that over the past five years the quality of first degrees went up for all universities. The analysis was carried out by Pedro Pablo Rosso, its executive director.

Also, five years ago, 12 universities had a ranking score below 30; now only one – Universidad Arturo Prat – is in that situation. At the same time, the number of universities with scores between 60 and 75 went up from three to seven.

The two quality indicators used by Universitas in its ranking, showed the largest improvement over the past five years for most universities. The indicators used to measure quality are the number of academics with over half a day contract and with a doctoral degree, and what the ranking calls “the formative process”, defined as the number of students per academic employed for more than half a day and the years of accreditation of first degrees.

“Some more general indicators of academic performance, such as the proportion of accredited degrees and the number of years for which institutions have been accredited, have also gone up. Though in each of these aspects the system as a whole has a lot of room for improvement, the advances are encouraging,” said Universitas Executive Director Pedro Pablo Rosso in a column published in El Mercurio last month.

Worrying indicators

However, he says two indicators are worrying. These are the rate of desertion at the end of the second year of a bachelor degree and the gap between the theoretical and real duration of degrees.

One of the main reasons why students quit their studies is, in his view, the poor quality of secondary education “which does not empower them to handle high volumes of information, as they must do when they enter university”.

“As for the incongruity between the theoretical and actual duration of degrees, it is easy to predict that this will not change as long as the rigid curriculums, overloaded with content, and the bad evaluation systems persist. The latter include unfriendly and questionable degree-awarding requirements such as final theses or knowledge exams, which demand months of preparation and revision of the contents of five years of study,” adds Rosso.

He points out the great disparity in first-degree quality among leaders and laggards in the university ranking. Though the gap has lessened in the 2012-16 period, Rosso maintains it is still excessive.

“The gap has a deplorable social consequence: the universities that top the ranking are also the ones that are most selective, which points to grave disparities in the quality of the education received (in the best and worst universities),” he says.

More favourable rankings

In the 2016 Universitas 21 or U21 ranking of national higher education systems – which this year evaluated 50 national systems of higher education from all continents – published in May, Chile ranks 33rd, just below Hungary and Poland and ahead of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, the other Latin American countries in the ranking. It is also ahead of countries such as Greece, Serbia, Rumania, Thailand, Turkey, Croatia and Iran.

The U21 ranking analysis covers four areas of higher education: resources, environment (such as autonomy and competition), output (such as participation rates, research performance, employability of graduates) and connectivity (such as relationships with business and the community and international links).

According to J Salvador Peralta, associate professor of political science at the University of West Georgia, United States, Chile’s Universidad de Chile and Pontifical Catholic University of Chile or PUC, which lead all national and international rankings, have been successful at attracting international academics, and this has helped them improve their quality of teaching, to build PhD programmes and boost research productivity.

These universities topped the 2016 AméricaEconomía, a yearly university ranking in a leading Latin American economic magazine, published on 30 November.

Government’s HE reform under fire

Rosso tells University World News that other problems bedevilling Chilean universities include low government investment, which, he adds, is not being addressed by the government’s higher education reform that is currently under discussion.

An aim of the reform is increasing inclusion through free tuition for the poorest, something that Rosso thinks was already under way. He wonders whether the government’s higher education reform project is “ideological” by which he means that its aim is to change the higher education model, eradicate for-profit in universities and turn education into a right.

Rosso also regrets that the government’s higher education reform project says nothing about the duration of degrees, which, he says, are so long that they are equivalent to a bachelor plus a masters degree.

Ricardo Paredes, director of PUC’s professional institute Duoc UC, and an educational expert, says that quality and supervision are two elements in the government’s higher education reform project which would help Chile achieve its higher education potential, identified by a Times Higher Education report published on 21 November entitled “TACTICS: The new smart set of rising HE powers”.

He cautions, however, that the over-regulation of Chile’s higher education system included in the government’s higher education reform project is a feature which, if approved, would weaken the system.

At the moment, there is no end in sight to the wrangling about the government’s project among congressmen, political parties and education experts. Michelle Bachelet’s government has given it high priority, declaring it will be approved before she leaves the presidency in March 2018.