Felipe Fernández-Armesto - The ups and downs of Chilean higher education

In education, Chile is a land of extremes, finds Felipe Fernández-Armesto

July 25, 2013

The mountains have darkened and disappeared outside my window. Facing me, on the fabric-covered wall, is a print after Duccio, I think, of the Virgin and Child. A bookcase of dense chestnut groans under multiple volumes of the Archivo de don Bernardo O’Higgins and the Boletín de la Academia Chilena de la Historia. The only photographs are of saints and popes. Beyond the desk, two antique armchairs of Hispanic angularity, surprisingly upholstered in kilim, reproach me with their emptiness. When a visiting professor occupies someone else’s room, the same questions recur: whom have I displaced? Where is he or she? What do these pictures, books, furnishings, outlooks mean to the habitual occupant?

I am in the University of the Andes, Santiago de Chile, on the mountain slopes high above the city’s notorious smog. The university is a foundation of Opus Dei. The prelature’s guiding hand lies lightly over the place, and I detect only plural opinions and unrestrained academic curiosity. The physical plant of “Los Andes” is as close to perfection as I have ever encountered on a campus: perfectly designed, perfectly finished, perfectly cleaned, perfectly polished, perfectly calculated to fit the purpose of a university. All the buildings frame fabulous views with adventurous architecture – snail’s shell-staircases, quiet fountains, an amphitheatre surrounded by a cloister. Comforting solidity combines with spectacular sacrifices of space. Lunch today was in the economics refectory: tablecloth, silver service, prawn salad, excellent wine. Not surprisingly, in this lovely atmosphere, fortified by this food, everybody is super-nice and good-humoured. The students are amazingly attentive. I asked them to begin today’s class by summarising yesterday’s: I don’t think anyone at the same level at any other university I’ve taught in would have done so with more efficiency and accuracy. A student asked a complex question right at the end of class. I said that it demanded a long answer and that I’d pause for anyone who had to get away. Nobody moved.

I have also spent time in Santiago’s most revered and acclaimed university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, working on the ambitious collaborative projects that are under way with my home institution in Notre Dame. “La Católica” is big, old and blessed with stolid grandeur, but resembles Los Andes in its air of well-used wealth, cumulative success and unwavering academic focus.

Free enterprise has worked: Chicago economics has done more for Chile than for Chicago. About 900,000 Chileans are in higher education, and it would be impractical for the state to pick up the bill for all of them

Most of the rest of Chilean higher education, however, is in serious trouble. I discovered the depths of the problems when my kind hosts planned a daunting programme of visits to museums, churches and historic sites. The scheme had to be abandoned because tens of thousands of other institutions’ students were demonstrating downtown, juggling low-level violence with the police. In the state-run flagship University of Chile, occupied classrooms were defaced by graffiti, loud with outrage. The contrast with the beauty and tranquillity of La Católica and Los Andes could hardly be greater.

Money is the root of the students’ grievance. Relative to gross national product per capita, Chile is the world’s most expensive country in which to be a student. The average ticket price of more than $4,000 (£2,600) a year is only a few hundred dollars short of the official minimum wage. Los Andes and La Católica provide generous scholarships from their own resources, but publicly funded grants cover only 18 per cent of the total cost of university courses nationwide. Legislation limits interest rates on student loans, and the government acts as guarantor in deserving cases: about half the national student body qualifies for this form of help. But the guarantees kick in only after serious hardship. The political connotations of the present situation exacerbate feelings: in Chile the right to university education was guaranteed free of charge to qualified candidates until the Pinochet regime abolished it.

Yet while the prices have risen, demand has risen more. Another of the protesters’ grievances is the proliferation of “universidades de lucro” – private, for-profit set-ups. The latest of these – the Bernardo O’Higgins University, whose critics denounce it as a pinochetista enterprise – was denied accreditation by the responsible quango, the National Accreditation Committee, but the government overturned the decision on appeal.

The main political opposition – a Left and Centre coalition under former president Michelle Bachelet – has endorsed the students’ demands for a return to free universal provision. The main trade union organisation, the Workers’ United Centre, collaborates in the demonstrations. But Chileans justly congratulate themselves on having the best-educated population in Latin America and an economy that has sustained uninterrupted growth through every global crisis. Investment in universities has matched rising prices. By common acclaim, La Católica is Latin America’s leading place of learning. Free enterprise has worked: Chicago economics has done more for Chile than for Chicago. About 900,000 Chileans are in higher education, and it would be impractical for the state to pick up the bill for all of them. The common-sense solution – a sliding scale of means-adjusted costs – commands most support. Yet the enragés’ indignation is inextinguishable.

Now dawn is seeping through the smog; the city is stretching out of sleep; the mountains are heaving back into sight. I have a contented yet uncomplacent class to teach. But the serenity that surrounds me on the campus of Los Andes will remain unattainable downtown for a long time.

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