A new government was inaugurated in Chile in March 2010. The incoming administration, headed by President Sebastián Piñera, is the first right-of-center government since the re-establishment of democracy in 1990. It arrives in the wake of four consecutive left-of-center governments held by the political parties grouped in the Concertación alliance, one of the most successful coalitions in Chile’s political history, which remained 20 years in power.
Higher education fared quite well during the Concertación years: enrollments grew nearly fourfold since 1990, approaching now a 40% gross enrollment rate, resources for student aid grew by a factor of 8, and funding for research increased by a factor of 12 in the same period, while publications registered with the ISI World ok Knowledge multiplied by four. The professoriate grew in numbers and qualifications, sustaining the definitive professionalization of the academic career in Chilean universities. Finally, to mention but the most salient milestones, an accreditation system (one of the first in Latin America) was established to certify quality standards in institutions and programs.
These successes notwithstanding, a sense of unease with the future development of higher education in Chile has been taking hold of university leaders, politicians, the higher education policy community, and various stakeholders, especially in industry. The grievances are varied and not necessarily consistent across the different constituencies. Some bemoan the extent of privatization of the system, one of the highest in the world, and the “absence” of the state: 90% of institutions and 78% of enrollments are in the private sector, while private funding accounts for 85% of all expenditures in higher education, and between 50 and 75% of the budgets of public universities.
Others point out that access to the most desirable programs and institutions continues to depend significantly on social class, and therefore opportunity is markedly stratified within an educational system that from pre-school onwards is far from providing a level playing field for equal opportunity.
It is also argued that in spite of accreditation, there is still too much poor performance in some sectors of the institutional landscape of higher education, especially among non-selective universities and across the technical-vocational sector. The ability of Chilean higher education to support a knowledge-based economy has also been called into question. No Chilean university comes close to the kind of outputs that define world-class research universities, and they are accordingly punished with poor showings in international rankings.
In a 2009 report on Chilean higher education by the OECD and the World Bank, prepared as part of the process of data gathering and analysis prior to Chile’s membership in the OECD, most of these shortcoming were highlighted and discussed in the context of urging Chile to undertake new reforms to its higher education that would move the country forward in the direction of world class performance, and at the same time minimize the flaws higher education has been accumulating in the past decades. According to the report, while Chile had been successful in accommodating vast expansion without the compromise in quality seen elsewhere in the region, a new round of reforms is required to put Chile’s higher education more in tune with the present and future demands of society and the economy.
In addition to the problems of insufficient public investment in higher education, unequal access across socio-economic groups, uneven quality of institutions and programs not sufficiently addressed through accreditation, and a modest performance in scientific research and training of advanced human capital, the OECD-WB report takes issue with the inefficient structure of degree programs, whereby students may take eight years to finish their first degree, attrition is high, and education is scarcely aligned with the demands of the workplace. Other points of criticism are the system’s weak governance mechanisms, the underdevelopment of the technical and vocational sector, universities’ lukewarm efforts at internationalization of curricula and student experience, among others.
Within this long “to do list”, the new government has announced it will focus on the problems of access, first by revising the national university entrance test to ensure it does not create unfair advantages to some students, and then by increasing funding for scholarships and loans. An upgrade of quality assurance mechanisms will also be a priority, both with regards to accreditation and also to the quality of teacher training institutions and programs, and the preparedness of their graduates to become effective teachers. Finally, funding for institutions is planned to increase, but in the form of competitive grants tied to measurable results, instead of direct transfers.
It is unclear whether the Piñera government will be able to muster the necessary support both within the higher education community and outside of it, to realize these plans. They seem widely beneficial in their general outline, but the details are cause of disagreements. In fact, much of the reform agenda summarized in the OECD-WB report is not new, and has been rehearsed in policy paper after policy paper commissioned by the Ministry of Education for at least the past 10 years. The diagnosis is clear. What has been missing is the political will and clout to translate the reform agenda into enacted reforms.