Universities demand change to free tuition policy

Universities facing financial constraints linked to the free tuition policy for low-income students are asking the government for a fast track bill to amend it. The financial drain caused by the implementation of free tuition has been clear since its outset in 2016.

The matter has become critical and widely debated in Chile for three main reasons.

Firstly, from next year universities will fail to receive half of the tuition fee for students who did not finish their careers on time.

Secondly, in 2019 students from the sixth-poorest income group will be exempted from tuition fees; initially it only benefited students from the 50%-most-vulnerable families.

Thirdly, according to the law, tuition fees for students who do not qualify for free tuition are being set by the government, meaning that universities that are short of resources cannot increase their fees at will.

According to a study by the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH), which represents 27 public and private universities, its members’ income will drop by US$65 billion over the next 12 months.

But there is some good news. For the first time in six years, the number of those registered to sit the national university selection test (PSU) dropped. Education Minister Marcela Cubillos said that the fall could be due to the low university drop-out rate registered since the free tuition policy started.

Universities tighten their belts

Anticipating the financial restrictions, some universities increased student numbers after free tuition came on stream in 2016. For example, Universidad de Chile’s law school increased student numbers by a third.

To make matters worse, the 2019 government national budget of US$73 billion is an increase of only 3.2% over the 2018 budget, the lowest increase since 2012. It will also be the first time since that date that public expenditure grows less that GNP (gross national product).

The government’s 2019 budget proposal for education of US$191 million represents a rise of 6.2% over 2018, according to Finance Minister Felipe Larraín. The largest increase is for granting free tuition to the 60%-most-vulnerable households.

The 2019 national budget project, now in parliament – labelled as “stingy” by the opposition and “prudent” by government parties – will not ease the deficit universities are facing, so financial cuts are unavoidable.

The private university Diego Portales University (UDP) announced on 17 November that it would be adjusting its 2019 budget. Three law professors that UDP said “had a relative lower research performance” were dismissed, among them Professor Leonor Etcheberry, a Supreme Court lawyer. Her dismissal raised criticisms from within and without the university, particularly from fellow lawyers and their associations.

In protest over the dismissals, UDP’s law students stopped attending lessons and then took over their campus. They were demanding that the three professors be reinstated and that Marcelo Montero, the faculty dean, be dismissed. After eight days of mobilisation they reached an agreement with the university.

Etcheberry was invited to come back under her former employment conditions but she had not answered at the time of writing. Nothing has yet happened with the two other dismissed academics. Rector Montero’s position will be reviewed next April.

At Universidad Autónoma, a private university, its rector, Teodoro Ribera, said that “academic staff restructuring was not foreseen at present but they would have to increase their contribution to teaching, extension and research”. Universidad Alberto Hurtado, another private university run by the Jesuits, has cut spending in service units.

Proposals for changing the law

The CRUCH sent a letter to the parliament’s budget commission, where the national budget for 2019 was being discussed, and to Juan Eduardo Vargas, head of higher education at the Ministry of Education. In the letter, they asked the government to modify the state universities’ special credit fund for lower-income students so as to allow universities to capitalise repayments instead of using them to give out more loans, as the law now requires.

Aliro Bórquez, rector of the Catholic University of Temuco, proposed instead that the free tuition policy be changed to finance the duration of a degree plus an extra year.

Ricardo Paredes, head of the Pontifical Catholic University’s Duoc UC, a technical institute, cautioned in a letter to national daily El Mercurio on 21 November that a reform to the higher education law must consider the free tuition policy alongside student loans for all students.

Otherwise, he says, if some institutions stop providing free tuition to balance their budget, the demand for government loans will increase and the financial burden for the government will still be there.

José Francisco Lagos, deputy director of Instituto Res Pública, a think tank, told University World News – following a letter of his in El Mercurio entitled “Amending the Mistake” – that the free tuition policy must be seriously questioned and changed in order to protect the quality of higher education.

“The university world is very dynamic and requires flexibility. And these restrictions imposed by law do not allow them to adjust to changing circumstances and plan for the medium and long term as their financing is tied up,” Lagos told University World News.

He said the government must be open to changing the free tuition policy in order to correct what he calls “the intrinsic injustices” of the policy. By this he means that priority must be given to students unable to apply to a university because, for example, they do not meet academic requirements or must work for a living.

To this end, his proposals include providing maintenance scholarships, improving the quality of primary and secondary education, where students from more than 800 schools do not qualify for university entrance due to their low marks in the university selection test, and enticing good teachers to teach in highly vulnerable schools by doubling their salaries.

Lagos’ position on the economic problems that Chilean universities are facing is clear: “We have a higher education system that is facing financial problems. Either we assume the costs of a defective policy or we change tack.”