Free Tuition: A Rocky Rollout in Chile
The big news in May in Santiago was the announcement of the "free tuition" plan. Only it's not quite free tuition, and it's still not clear how it will be paid for.
So the big news in May in Santiago was the announcement of the start of the "free tuition" plan, that was part of President Michelle Bachelet's election platform in 2013. Only it's not quite free tuition, and it's still not clear how it will be paid for.
I've written previously about the Bachelet promise and the potential difficulties with implementing it in a country where most higher education is provided by private institutions, and forced nationalization is expressly prohibited in the constitution. To those difficulties have been added the fact that the big tax hike the government thought would finance its reforms to compulsory and post-secondary education isn't in fact going to raise quite as much money as previously expected, due mostly to a slump in the price of Chile's main export, copper. Not to mention the fact that the President herself has seen her approval ratings crater due to corruption allegations regarding her son.
The announcement last week left a lot of questions unanswered. Free education, the President said, would now be available to "el 60% de los estudiantes más vulnerables" (the 60% of the most vulnerable students), which sounds like 60% of students, but based on the number of students estimated to benefit—roughly 250,000 students, or a quarter of the total—actually seems to mean "students from the poorest three income quartiles". There was no explanation of how institutions would be compensated for taking students. And the President added a curious phrase, saying that students would be able to "accedan a la gratuidad completa y efectiva, sin beca ni crédito" (have access to free tuition without scholarship or loan). One hoped that the intention here was to underline that she meant free tuition, and not just free net tuition (i.e. where grants offset the cost of fees). However, some—ncluding the academic and former Minister Jos Joaquin Brunner —have wondered whether it might mean that those who receive free tuition will lose eligibility for student aid.
Weirder by far is the President's decision to simply exclude some institutions from the process. Universities that are members of CRUCH (an acronym meaning "Council of Rectors") —16 public and 9 private universities that make-up the older (pre-1973) higher education system—were included, as were a selection of the country's Institutions Professional (basically, Polytechnics), and its Centros de Formacion Tecnica (basically, community colleges). But the country's 35 private post-1973 universities were pointedly left out of the program. No reason for this was forthcoming, it's not solely because they are private, as all the IPs and CFTs are private, and they were included in the scheme. One senses that some decades-old animosity between university sectors is playing out here. Whatever the reason, it puts Chile in the weird position of giving free tuition to median-income students attending a CRUCH university, and giving nothing beyond loans to students from the bottom of the income scale studying in the same program at a private university.
In theory, the government is committed to implementing full, across-the-board free tuition at some later date. But it's unclear exactly when this will happen and, given the situation in the private universities, whether it will in fact cover all forms of education. Will it, for instance, cover graduate studies? Will it cover 7 or 8 years of undergraduate education (currently the norm), or only the first 4 or 5? Most importantly: how are institutions going to be compensated for taking all these students for free?
Hopefully, all of these questions will be resolved expeditiously. But with only seven months remaining until the implementation date, Chileans are still in the dark about a lot of important details.
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