Major higher education reforms secured by senators

“Historic” was how Chile’s Socialist President Michelle Bachelet referred to the Congressional approval on 24 January of the higher education reform law and a special law for state universities.

Less than two months before leaving office, Bachelet finally achieved her campaign promise to reform Chile’s education from top to bottom.

Since taking power four years ago, her government coalition had managed to get more than 29 laws on education passed, such as those on nursery schools, the teaching profession and non-discrimination in primary and secondary schools.

Higher education reform was the missing link but, after 18 months of bitter discussion, 102 deputies, including those from the opposition, voted in favour of both laws. Only two abstained.

The higher education reform law guarantees free education. Free education has existed since 2016 but was subject to the inclusion in each year’s national budget. At present, the poorest 60% of students study for free. The benefit will be extended further depending on GDP trends. According to estimates, achieving universal free education will take around 70 years.

The reform law establishes that tuition fees for each degree will be set by a committee of experts. Students may be consulted. The government will set a ceiling for the tuition fees of students not eligible for free education; higher education institutions can only set the fees for students belonging to the richest 10% of Chilean families.

The higher education bill sets up a higher education sub-secretariat charged with coordinating the system and deciding who is entitled to free higher education. It also creates a higher education regulator (called Superintendency in Chile) empowered to supervise and penalise institutions which do not provide quality of education or have for-profit operations.

Accreditation will be compulsory for all universities and technical institutions from 2020. At present, there are 66 non-accredited higher education institutions.

“When in full swing, the reform will make Chile fairer but also richer because it will promote talents,” said Adriana Delpiano, the outgoing minister of education who pushed the education laws through parliament, in an El Mercurio interview. She also said that the law guarantees quality of education because all higher education institutions will be accredited.

Free higher education is here to stay

Bachelet is handing the government over to her right-wing successor, Sebastián Piñera, on 11 March. Piñera objected to free higher education as did his appointed minister of education, Gerardo Varela. The policy is so popular, however, that both have changed their views.

“Parliament has ruled that university education must be financed by all Chileans, according to the country’s economic possibilities. On 11 March all appointed ministers will pledge to abide by the Constitution and the law. I will honour this pledge,” said Varela in his column in El Mercurio.

Delpiano has no doubts that the free education policy is here to stay. “This is a law-abiding country; only a new law can modify an existing law.”

Ignacio Sánchez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, valued the final shape of the bill but warned that some aspects need to be corrected and improved.

“One of them is financing because what happens with regulated tuition fees is key … We have to make sure that it does not impinge on the budgets of institutions and hence affect quality,” he said in an article in El Mercurio on 25 January.

Private universities cry discrimination

The aim of the special law for state universities, also approved in late January, is to set a legal framework for them as well as strengthening them. State universities lost much ground when Chile’s last big educational reform, which encouraged the formation of private universities, was passed in 1981.

The state universities law provides for a one-off transfer to them of US$495 million over the next 10 years. As was to be expected, state universities welcomed it.

“It is a good starting point, but I think we will carry on talking about the role of state universities,” said Ennio Vivaldi, rector of Universidad de Chile.

“It is a good pillar to carry on building higher education in Chile,” added Juan Manuel Zolezzi, rector of Universidad de Santiago de Chile.

However, the nine non-state universities that together with Chile’s existing 18 state universities belong to the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH), say they have been discriminated against.

“We will meet the new elected authorities as soon as possible to insist that we must not be excluded from this special funding,” said Oscar Galindo, Universidad Austral’s rector in an interview with Radio Cooperativa.