Higher Education Reform Debated in Chile

The current bill is a step backward for Chilean higher education. It is urgent for it to be significantly improved.

January 2, 2017

The proposal presented by the government to reform higher education in Chile is currently being analyzed and debated in the Chilean parliament. It is important to remember that the last reform took place 35 years ago. Since then, the system has grown and changed considerably. However, despite the pressure to address specific objectives — quality with greater equity and the creation of new knowledge — the current draft includes some elements that are cause for concern and contributing to a generalized malaise. Improvements are needed in defining concepts such as education for the future, the public role of universities, equitable and appropriate treatment of diverse institutions, autonomy, system regulation, stimulus to regional universities, the relevance of technical and professional education, and (finally) student and institutional financing. All of these ideas are crucial elements that will significantly determine the quality of the project.

It is important to analyze the document with care. There is no clear definition of the comprehensive and diverse higher education system we want for the future of the country. Neither is there a definition for the public role of the university. This role is only described in regard to state-owned universities. The draft project fails to consider the combined contribution that traditional public and private institutions have made to the country for decades. Institutions grouped in the network known as G9 (traditional non-state universities), express this public commitment through the work they do in training, research and social contributions that benefit the quality of life in Chile. Diversity in the system must be valued, without forgetting that quality must remain a priority.

The bill also fails to address the need for stimulating the development of regional universities. While these institutions are fundamental to the scientific, cultural and economic development of their communities, they also provide regional stimulus necessary to ensure that the country offers equal growth opportunities throughout its territory. Furthermore, it is necessary to encourage technical and professional education, which is crucial for the country´s sustainable development.

Autonomy threatened

A fundamentally important aspect of reform is that institutional autonomy must be protected against disproportionate demands for system regulation, transparency and quality assurance. The system requires a new institutional structure that addresses the admission system and establishes a stronger regulatory process that guarantees financial and informational transparency for parents and students. The new structure introduces a Sub-secretary of Higher Education responsible for legal and financial compliance with public policy, a “Superintendencia” (administrative entity) providing oversight for policy, resource management and good practice in higher education and a Quality Council to encourage universities to develop and improve quality, but it should not burden institutions by further bureaucratizing the system or giving the state excessive control. The current draft bill presents a major risk to university autonomy, a crucial aspect of further system development and growth. The bill risks over-regulation by the Ministry. Particularly, the regulation of tuition fees threatens to extend additional control over postsecondary institutional budgeting. If we are to build a structure for the future, the Sub-secretary should assist in elaborating, coordinating and implementing policies and programs; the new Quality Council should be oriented to improving the accreditation system by providing continuous assessment and assistance to institutions; the Superintendence should have a supervisory role in the financial area, as well as in quality, information, and claims. The participation of these offices should be in collaboration with Chile’s postsecondary education, not in control of them.

Public Funding

Most worrisome is the project’s proposal in regard to public funding, especially regarding free university education, the regulation of tuition fees and base funding to public role institutions. By establishing a program to progressively introduce free access to higher education for the most vulnerable students and to achieve greater inclusion and more equal opportunity, the project risks weakening the quality of educational projects. Government interference with setting tuition fees and increasingly scarce public funds will force institutions to undergo major financial adjustments to support this public policy.

At the same time, increased public funding to universities is essential if the country is to develop research and create new knowledge, yet the bill eliminates these allocations and replaces them with a program for competitive funding for research and artistic creation. This generates great uncertainty throughout the system and limits the capacity of institutions for long term planning. These funds should be increased and accountability processes strengthened.

Eight steps needed for responsible reform

The bill must begin by acknowledging the public role of the university, a role that clearly extends beyond state-owned institutions. Second, a structure should help organize the higher education system, but vigilantly avoiding overregulation by the Superintendence, Sub Secretary and Quality Council, as these new authorities could easily undermine autonomy and university development. Third, regional stimulus should be addressed. Fourth, it is important that the project articulate support for science and the creation of new knowledge. Fifth, the current situation with the State-Sponsored Credit, must be thoroughly analyzed, updating conditions and increasing flexibility for payment. Sixth, technical and professional education should be reevaluated from a new perspective, appraising its contribution and relevance for the country´s development. Seventh, it is necessary to subsidize student costs through free access for the most vulnerable students and additional support through scholarships and loans. Finally, a new fund for research should be available to all institutions to strengthen the contribution of universities to research and knowledge creation.

The current bill is a step backwards for Chilean higher education. It is urgent for it to be significantly improved before Congress approves it. The building blocks of an adequate project should be quality, development and equity, respect for the autonomy of institutions and support for their capacity to grow and develop.


Ignacio Sánchez is a pediatrician and full professor of the School of Medicine of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC), and ent is serving his second period as rector of the University. He is part of the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH) and head of the Chilean Chapter of Catholic Universities of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU). He also represents UC in the network of traditional non-state universities known as  the G9. Recently he was elected Vice-president for the Southern Region at the Organization of Catholic Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean – ODUCAL.




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