The Evolving Faculty Profile at Research-Centered Universities in Chile

Today, research-oriented universities in Chile have an academic hierarchy comparable to that of U.S. institutions.

June 12, 2018

There are multiple studies that suggest that the academic profession around the world has been largely influenced by the U.S. research university model.  Chile, like other Latin American countries, has not been an exception. However, only a few Chilean universities can aspire to pursue the U.S. research model considering the country’s small economy. One of the main reasons why there are only a few research institutions in emerging economies like Chile is because these types of institutions require extensive structural and financial resources to support research and students, such as appropriate laboratories, libraries, and other facilities for research to flourish.

In this regard, Chile is an interesting case study because of the way that the higher education system has progressed over the past 60 years. In the 1960s, the majority of Chile’s university faculty members were hired as teaching professors who worked mostly part-time, in contrast to faculty at U.S. or European institutions who have historically been hired mostly on a full-time basis. Likewise, until the late 1990s most Latin American universities did not require faculty members to hold a doctoral degree nor was research activity a job requirement, with the exception of Brazil were the professionalization of academia developed earlier. In Chile, universities focused on educating and training professionals until 1967 when a comprehensive university reform ushered in a new era for higher education with an emphasis on social equity, democracy, and modernization. This change in the structure and purpose of Chilean universities resulted in the rapid expansion of student enrollment due to a commitment to free higher education as well as the ratification of institutional autonomy.

As part of this national reform, universities were expected to have a greater focus on academic research. The higher education system responded to this new trend by increasing the number of faculty members with a research profile, installing new mechanisms for funding research projects, encouraging training abroad, and investing in the scientific professions. Following the 1973 coup, more higher education reforms were implemented that further affected the professionalization of faculty in Chile, making universities more competitive, differentiated, mass-oriented, and commercialized. In other words, these additional reforms introduced more neoliberal principles into the Chilean higher education system. Directly related to the development of the academic profession in Chile, was the creation of the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FONDECYT) – the main source of research funding in the country until today.

With Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, massification accelerated, followed by an investment in quality assurance introduced in 1999, and later formalized in 2006 with the creation of the National Agency for Accreditation (CNA).

Another policy that impacted higher education was the expansion of post-graduate scholarship programs through the President’s scholarship programs for study abroad launched in 1981, and the creation of the “Becas Chile” program in 2008, which boosted the number scholarships for doctoral study. By 2014, 10,598 doctoral scholarships had been awarded – a considerable number for a small higher education system that had relied on part-time faculty. It is important to emphasized that the number of persons holding a doctorate in Chile in have increased from 1500 in 1990 to an estimative number of 8568 in 2018.

There is no doubt that all of these policies and reforms shaped the academic profession in Chile in one way or another, but particularly for faculty at research-oriented institutions. Only six universities are currently considered research-oriented institutions. These institutions account for most of the country’s research productivity and make Chile highly productive compared with the rest of Latin America in terms of peer-reviewed research publications.

Today, research-oriented universities in Chile have an academic hierarchy comparable to that of U.S. institutions. For example, many of these research-oriented institutions have a probationary period for tenure-track faculty ranging between 7-10 years. However, this trend is only evident in the most prestigious institutions in the country. These prestigious institutions have also increased expectations for their faculty members, converging on a doctoral degree or its equivalent for more professional or artistic disciplines, as the minimum qualification for employment. Requirements for moving up in the tenure-track pipeline have become stricter over time at these types of institutions. This trend is aligned with policies that define the current iteration of the Becas Chile program.

While it is true that the professionalization of the academic career in Chile, particularly in research-oriented institutions, has evolved over time, tending to imitate the U.S. research university model, the national objectives behind these reforms are not entirely clear. Scholars have suggested that the research-intensive model confers prestige and elite status, but the reforms may also have been intended to drive an institutional growth, a desire for many institutions. Additionally, growing economic constraints can motivate institutions to compete for publicly-funded research grants and other sources of external funding as a central part of the university’s financial strategy and, therefore, into a central part of what is expected from faculty members.

Although the research institution model in emerging economies, such as Chile, is difficult to implement because of the varied resources and conditions required, the desire to contribute to knowledge production and become an elite research institution is extremely attractive, and should be, no matter the local context or resulting pressures on national institutions.


This blog is based on the research paper: Veliz-Calderon, D., Theurillat, D., Paredes, V., & Pickenpack, A. (2018). The evolution of the academic profession in research universities in Chile. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(17). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.26.3262

Daniela Veliz-Calderon is Assistant professor and Director of Academic Development at the School of Education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Her research interests relate to the academic profession, internationalization, student affairs, and gender. Ph.D in Higher Education from the University of Maine and MA in Student Development in Higher Education from the same university.


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