Universities strongly oppose tuition fee suspension bill

Universities have come out strongly against a bill introduced in the National Congress of Chile on 27 March that would suspend tuition fee payments in all higher education institutions for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts. They argue that suspending tuition fees would gravely damage universities, their communities and their responsibility for maintaining the provision of education.

The bill establishes that each tuition fee quota should be paid over two years and with no penalties or interests.

“We are living in an extraordinary situation, where many families are unable to pay for their basic services, let alone for their higher education tuition fees,” said Juan Santana, Socialist Party deputy and one of the authors of the bill. According to him, some 600 families will face this predicament. “We are not seeking to eliminate tuition fees but to postpone payments,” Santana added.

However, Magdalena Vergara, executive director of Acción Educar, a think tank specialising in education, said all higher education institutions would be hit economically if the payment of fees is postponed, although those eligible for having free tuition students would be less affected.

Students contribute 60% of the income of private higher education institutions and 35% of government ones. In 2018, of a total of 157 higher education institutions, only 49 had subscribed to the free tuition law which enables students of the poorest six deciles of family income to study for free.

Federico Valdés, rector of the Universidad del Desarrollo, termed the proposed suspension of tuition fees “a hair-brained idea”.

Many university rectors have had similar reactions and have made their voices heard either singly or through professional organisations. The Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH), which represents 27 state and private universities, issued a public declaration on 30 March stating that suspending tuition payments would have a “serious and insurmountable impact, especially on regional universities”.

The tuition fee bill suspension project was also rejected by the so-called Group of 9 (G9) cluster of private and public universities.

Diego Durán, its newly elected president, who is also rector of the Universidad Católica del Maule, said: “I think congressmen are well-intentioned and sympathetic towards the plight of Chileans who are suffering from the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. However, I have the impression that they are not aware of how higher education institutions function.

“Freezing fees has a direct impact on institutional budgets, affecting their functioning in respect, for example, to people, workers, jobs or today’s need to teach long-distance.”

Both CRUCH and G9 consortiums maintain that a general rule for easing tuition payments is a bad idea. This is because, they say, each institution has its own income structure, its own spending plans and cannot trim spending by cutting back on administrative and academic personnel.

Therefore, the situation requires a case by case solution “which is not only about rescheduling tuition fee debts but also issuing scholarships and loans or enacting tuition fee differentials,” said the G9’s Durán.

Aldo Valle, CRUCH’s executive vice-president, told the Education Commission of the Chamber of Deputies on 14 March that the economic situation of each university has to be evaluated.

“The deficit situation affecting universities has expanded and predates the coronavirus crisis,” added Valle. He explained that after last October’s massive and violent social eruption in Chile, many families stopped paying. The problem was compounded by a drop in student registrations for the academic year starting March 2020. Especially in sparsely populated regions, intake had dropped, in some cases, by up to 50%.

Valle requested the Education Commission to wait for a CRUCH report on the impact of a tuition fee postponement for each university “before issuing a conclusive opinion”. The report will be ready next week.

Government support needed

Politicians and higher education leaders are saying that the government should come out in support of education in this contingency.

One of them is Senator Juan Ignacio Latorre who told the on-line news service El Mostrador that he believed the government should involve itself much more (in solving the higher education financial conjuncture). In particular, he said, the government should make advance payments to the higher education institutions it supports so that their operations are not affected by this crisis and they are able to, at least, carry on paying salaries.

Carlos Williamson, rector of Universidad San Sebastián (USS), spoke up for private universities in an interview with the El Mercurio daily on 14 April when he said: “Private universities depend almost exclusively on tuition fees so they cannot confront on their own the payment capacity stampede… The country will be paralysed until the end of June… and the most affected will be the most vulnerable… which make up the great majority of private university students.”

Though USS has already taken measures to assist students – it reduced April and May quotas and allowed payment of 50% of them in 2021 – Williamson foresees that many students will still face payment problems.

He said: “There has to be a state vision… with a common goal: to make every possible effort so that no student is forced to leave his or her university for not being able to pay.” He proposes that those six or eight months that cannot be paid now be financed by a medium-term credit for the poorest 60% of students, payable after graduation.

José Antonio Guzmán, rector of the Universidad de los Andes, made a similar proposal in an interview with El Mercurio on 13 April. He added that there are many students who did not apply for university credit because they thought they would be able to pay, but now that that situation has changed, “there should be an exceptional period for them to apply to the state credits available”.

To sustain education during the economic slowdown linked to the COVID-19 health crisis, the Ministry of Education instituted a plan of action three weeks ago that extends benefits for students and provides support to institutions operating online, including agreements to set up electronic platforms for those who do not have them.

University support during the health crisis

In the meantime, many universities are supporting students facing financial problems in various ways. A survey carried out by the sub-secretariat of education found that 77 higher education institutions – among them 93% of all universities and 78% of professional institutes – have introduced flexible payments for students in economic difficulties as well as scholarships for the most vulnerable.

Flexibility includes postponing payments until the early months of 2021, paying off part of the monthly fees, reducing monthly payments and extending the maturity date of quotas.

A quarter of all higher education institutions will be waiving interest and fines for those families that are unable to pay on time. Universidad Central de Chile has provided a total of over US$3 million dollars to some 10,000 students. It also exempted all existing students from paying tuition fees “regardless of their socio-economic situation” and is providing special financial benefits to students who come from the most vulnerable families.

To ensure the greatest uptake of long-distance lessons – due to the COVID-19 emergency, all Chilean universities, except two, have gone on to remote teaching – 32 higher education institutions are providing connectivity grants for students without internet, including data plans with telephone companies.

Over 56,000 of these connectivity supports had been granted up to 6 April. Also, around 8,000 computers, tablets and notebooks have been distributed to students who need them.