Higher education is at a crossroads – Government policy brief

“It is of the utmost urgency to rethink higher education from a long-term perspective in connection with civil society and the state’s institutional apparatus,” says a new brief by the government research centre Millennium Nucleus Student Experience in Higher Education in Chile. New policies have created difficulties on top of older, unresolved problems.

The brief, titled Transformation or Crisis: The dilemma of higher education, puts forward public policy suggestions leading to a national strategy aimed at “sustainably planning the development of the higher education system and the attainment of its objectives”.

The research centre is one of 36 centres of excellence that fall under the Millennium Science Initiative of the Chilean government’s National Agency of Investigation and Development.

The brief starts by recognising “the great dynamism and innovation in matters of higher education policies”, signalling the 2018 reform as the prime example. The new policies, however, have opened up new challenges that coexist with unresolved problems, it says. A number of problems are listed.

Enrolment and equity

There is enrolment stagnation as well as persisting limitations in equity and equal opportunities. Since the return of democracy in Chile in 1990, higher education enrolment has increased fivefold, to a total of 1,221,017 students in 2020, aided by various student assistance programmes, including the free tuition policy started in 2016.

At the same time, the gap between higher education students from higher- and lower-income groups was reduced dramatically, placing Chile as the Latin American country with the lowest higher education access gap between rich and poor.

However, inequity in access is still there, mainly in connection with quality higher education, student retention, graduation and future employment opportunities.

A disproportionate number of lower-income students are concentrated in the 41.2% of higher education institutions that are not accredited. Admission systems privilege previous academic achievement which, in Chile, is closely connected with social, economic and geographic factors.

In the past five years, registration in technical colleges has dropped by 5.5% and by 5.1% in professional institutes. The drop in tuition registration affected the northernmost Atacama (-15.4%) and southernmost Magallanes (-14.5%) regions as well as less selective institutions and programmes.

Student success

There are retention, progression and completion of studies difficulties. Although Chilean higher education has modernised curricula and developed a variety of access, progression and attainment support programmes, these lack equity, quality, relevance and pertinence, according to a 2017 OECD report.

Dropout rates remain high: around a third of undergraduates leave studies in their first year and almost half do so in the following years. Furthermore, 36%, on average, take longer to finish their studies.

To solve the problem, the brief recommends the design of curricula that are more attuned to student needs given that, at present, curricula are focused on traditional professional training, with too much content and specialisation, rigidity and insufficient support for students.


There is insufficient training flexibility and pertinence, and a mismatch between training and the world of labour. Furthermore, there are visible inequalities in work opportunities and wage levels related to students’ socio-economic origins.


There are disparities arising from regulations and quality assurance. Regulations and quality assurance have led to the betterment of academics and teachers, the development of infrastructure and to more resources for training support.

However, glaring disparities have emerged. For example, only 15% of almost 90,000 higher education academics have a doctorate and most of the doctors are concentrated in renowned metropolitan universities.

Governance deficiencies

There are governance deficiencies and lack of strategic vision for promoting autonomy, diversity and social support. For decades, until a major reform in 2018, Chile’s higher education system was managed by the market.

Law 21.091 of 2018 established general principles for higher education: autonomy, quality, cooperation, diversity, inclusion, academic liberty, participation pertinence, civic compromise, respect for human rights, transparency and articulation of the higher education system.

It also introduced a new legal and organisational regime for universities and a new form of financing based on permanent government contributions to state universities.

However, future challenges – such as the ongoing training of professionals, the expected contribution by universities to the functioning of democracy and to the material, cultural and social progress of the country and people’s welfare, participatory governance of higher education, and greater financial support for higher education institutions – were not taken on board by the reform, says the brief.

Financing difficulties

There are increasing difficulties financing higher education. Public subsidies for tuition fees have been substituting families’ contribution to higher education financing, but the drop in the number of undergraduate students registering for higher education – down 2.1% from 2016 to 2020, and down 3.7% in 2020 – as well as the impact of the pandemic, are having a deleterious effect on higher education financing.

“The cost of responding to the demands of the health crisis, to cater for increasingly diverse students, to finance the new free tuition system and to increase research and development investment, require enough resources and a long-term view,” says the brief.

To grow resources for financing higher education, the brief proposes a tax on higher education graduates.


There is a disconnection with the country’s development strategy. For several decades, public policy has regarded tertiary education as a process of human capital accumulation.

While this is so, higher education is also key for the consolidation of democracy and for national and local development. “It is necessary to move in the latter direction,” says the brief.

The report also maintains that it is essential to include higher education as a social right in Chile’s new constitution, which is under development. Giving higher education the qualification of a social right in the new constitution would secure the right to education for the duration of a person’s life.

The brief also advocates for more public and private funding for research, development and innovation devoted to a fuller understanding of development problems and the search for innovative solutions linked to the country’s priorities.