Government refuses measures to help ailing universities

Chile’s Ministry of Education has been criticised for rejecting special measures proposed by the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH) to shore up universities that are facing economic straits due to the COVID-19 pandemic and last October’s social unrest.

“The [government] does not understand the crux of the problem, a problem that will become worse in a few months,” said Juan Manuel Zolezzi, CRUCH executive vice president.

Universities have had to invest extra resources to implement the long-distance teaching required by the pandemic, including buying educational software, training academics as well as providing computers and internet grants to students – and this at a time when their income has gone down drastically.

CRUCH reported to the Education Commission of the Chamber of Deputies that the combined income of the 30 universities that make up CRUCH had dropped by around US$170 million. The reasons for the fall included last year’s October social uprising which led many students to withdraw from their institutions. On top of that, this year registration fees were around 10% less than expected.

Loan repayment problems

The difficult economic situation being faced by students is reflected in their problem with repaying student loans. In Chile, around 30% of higher education students have a loan and the cumulative debt amounts to around US$8 million. Last year, 68,000 families fixed their loan repayments to a maximum of 10% of their annual income. By 26 May 2020 around 23,000 students had requested to do the same.

This year’s national budget allows student defaulters to re-programme payments if they pay a single quota. Some 6,594 persons had re-programmed their payments by the end of May, but another 7,237 debtors could not do so because of the COVID-19 emergency.

Because of the pandemic, students who are up to date with their payments will be allowed to pay smaller quotas, and postponements are available when the payer in the family loses his or her job.

Proposed measures

To circumvent a “financial collapse in higher education institutions due to the economic crises provoked by the coronavirus sanitary emergency”, Zolezzi proposed several measures:

• Setting up of an emergency fund for higher education institutions.

• Allowing students to roll over their university fees for the duration of the pandemic.

• Cancelling scholarship debts.

• Making a fresh call for higher education scholarships and loans.

The latter would be funded through the flexible use of the surplus accumulated by the University Credit Solidarity Fund (FSCU, according to its Spanish acronym), meant for applicants to CRUCH institutions who belong to the bottom 80% of the population in terms of income, Zolezzi said.

But Juan Eduardo Vargas, sub-secretary of higher education, said that the benefits proposed for students were unaffordable. However, he was not against a more flexible use of FSCU’s surplus “provided they [CRUCH universities] put part of the surplus into a fund for all higher education institutions”.

“The emergency requires the collaboration of the entire higher education system and for the universities that historically have received more support from the state (CRUCH universities) to support others,” Vargas reflected.

As expected, CRUCH dismissed the government’s plan for the use of the FSCU surplus. It amounted “to undressing one saint to dress another”, said Zolezzi. If it was adopted, he warned, CRUCH would take legal action.

“We don’t like it, but we will do it,” he said firmly.