Why is free university tuition not popular with many?

Four years into its implementation, nobody in Chile seems to want to ‘own’ the free tuition policy instituted in 2016. This is surprising, for the most universally acknowledged virtue of the idea of free tuition is its overwhelming political appeal: an idea so popular with the voters should not find itself bereft of champions.

Aside from the beneficiaries and their families, who are understandably happy about not having to pay for tuition or get a loan, why is it that hardly anyone in academia, political parties or institutions of higher education in Chile seems to support the policy course set by decision-makers in 2015?

Unclear definition of goals

To begin with, the sponsoring government of President Michelle Bachelet (2014-18) never articulated a clear rationale for abolishing tuition. Since the original idea was to make higher education free for all undergraduates, with no means testing, tipping the scale to benefit the underserved could not have been the goal.

Was the goal then to limit exposure to debt? Possibly, at least from a political angle, given that debt was high on the list of grievances of the students who mobilised by the hundreds of thousands in 2011 to protest against the commodification of education.

President Bachelet often said that free tuition was a matter of principle: if higher education was a right of the people, then it had to be free. But open access unconstrained by academic performance was never considered as a parallel proposal to make higher education truly open to every high school graduate (Chile has an SAT-type test for admission).

What was offered instead was free access, conditional on passing the academic filters for admission set by institutions. This cannot promote greater participation of the most vulnerable, for in Chile, as in the rest of the world, school performance and high test scores depend largely on social class background.

The reality check of the budget

Fuzzy purposes were, hence, a clear weakness of the Bachelet free tuition policy. The national budget has proven a second weakness: a downturn of Chile’s economy and more limited tax revenues than anticipated did away with the dream of universal free tuition, and the tinkering with numbers began.

This is a story too long to recapitulate here. The upshot is that free tuition had to be reserved for certain students from families in the bottom six deciles of income who matriculated in certain institutions.

In all, some 340,000 students (30% of the total undergraduate enrolment) pay no tuition fees. For many associated with the political left, this is a far cry from the vision of a higher education system wrenched free from the claws of the market.

Critics on this side of the aisle claim that free tuition is yet another form of voucher (a per capita funding system that Chile adopted early on for its school system), that it has done nothing to quell competition among institutions or foster cooperation, and that – contrary to the will of the left-of-centre Bachelet government to strengthen public universities – it has resulted in an unintended windfall for large, non-selective private institutions with low academic entrance thresholds.

Moreover, the funding structure retains tuition fees and loans to defray them for students who are not exempt from paying tuition.

While serving as the opposition party in congress, the political right, which has been in power since President Sebastián Piñera took office in 2018, was initially against the free tuition initiative, which it saw as economically wasteful and a capitulation to students’ demands.

Nonetheless, it ended up voting for the Bachelet administration’s proposal, once it was assured that private institutions would not be excluded from the programme. As a candidate, Piñera pragmatically vowed to maintain the free tuition programme – dismantling it would have been political suicide.

Problems of design

Aside from politics, there are elements in the design of the programme that cause much distress to Chilean university rectors. For free tuition to work, there need to be caps: caps on what the government will pay for each enrolled student, on how many students can be enrolled and on how long benefits will be provided.

The current caps are rather low, the rectors contend, and are especially detrimental to the finances of more research-intensive institutions, where per student costs are higher than at teaching colleges.

First, the per-capita allocation provided by the government is based on the average per-programme tuition fee charged by all institutions in each of four accreditation levels. The idea is for institutions with better accreditation (ie, whose teaching is presumably more expensive) to have higher caps. But since institutions in each accreditation cluster are diverse in terms of quality and scope of functions, drawing an average unavoidably harms the better in each lot.

A second restriction affecting institutions’ budgets is the extension of the benefit in time: free tuition lasts only for the official duration of an educational programme.

In practice, however, students enrolled in programmes lasting four to five years typically take between 10% and 30% longer to complete their studies than expected, while students in associate’s degree programmes overextend their studies by 50%. As a result, every year tens of thousands of students lose their benefits in the final leg of their studies.

Lastly, lest the expansion of first-year student enrolment across institutions with free tuition threaten fiscal stability, no institution is allowed to increase enrolment beyond 2.7% per year. This has had a paradoxical effect on access. For two decades, the main driver of greater access to higher education for less privileged students was the expansion of the system, often at rates of between 5% and 7% per year.

These students would typically not wrest away the most coveted places in the most prestigious universities from upper middle-class students with better school grades and test scores, so their only option was to get a spot in the technical and vocational system, or in non-selective universities. They can still do this, but at a much slower rate than in the past.

Unknown outcomes

All things considered, the ultimate judgment about the merits and drawbacks of free tuition will rest on the evaluation of its effects on the distribution of educational opportunity, on institutional finances and development and on who wins and who loses. Administrative data generated every year on students’ applications, admissions, progression and graduation will soon shed light on the educational side of outcomes.

An improved methodology for defining tuition caps will be implemented in 2020 through a panel of experts who will attempt to define costs of instruction per ‘family’ of programmes.

This adjustment, together with a healthier pattern of growth of the Chilean economy and tax revenues, may assuage the various rectors’ anxieties about finances. But for now, the seemingly popular free tuition policy stands alone, supported only by its powerful entrenchment and the difficulty of change.

Andrés Bernasconi is professor of education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and director of the Center for Advanced Studies on Educational Justice (CJE). E-mail: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.