Change comes hard in Chile

May 23, 1997

A REVISED package of measures aimed at modernising Chile's 16 state universities is finally scheduled to be passed in the next few weeks.

The State Universities Framework Law supersedes the original State Universities Modernisation Bill, which was dropped last June after students mounted one of the biggest demonstrations seen since democracy was restored in 1990.

The students had accused the government of acting anti-democratically in deciding the future of the Chilean state university model without consulting university staff and students. The rectors of the 16 state universities had also objected to clauses defining "prohibitive" levels of debt state universities could incur within one presidential term.

Jose Pablo Arellano, the education minister, sent the revised bill to the council of rectors last November. Detailed feedback on each clause was forwarded from universities to the ministry's higher education division in March for assimilation into the final text of the bill.

The new framework law aims to replace rigid "administrative statutes" imposed by the Pinochet regime on employees of state universities in 1981 with a more flexible management structure. It includes provisions about the level of government representation in state universities, the supervisory capacity of the Exchequer, the need to develop postgraduate as well as undergraduate education, to invest in priority research areas, and to tighten quality control.

Last month the government and the council of rectors made a clear concession to last June's student protests when they agreed that the new bill should grant students and staff members full membership of higher councils of the state universities, although they ruled out participation in the election of rectors.

Students will regain the legally enshrined vote on issues such as curricula, timetables, academic testing and teaching assessment which were denied them under Pinochet when generals were put in charge of the universities and student and staff representation abolished.

But the concession stops well short of the level of representation students enjoyed in the 1960s, when the day-to-day running of the institutions became highly politicised. The government's wariness of empowering militant elements in a remobilising student movement looks unlikely to dissuade students from rogue tactics, such as the seizing of the University of Chile's law faculty building last month.

Agroup of law students occupied it for a week until the authorities agreed to make changes to the syllabus, assessment and faculty.

Students' demands are strengthened by the financial investment they have made in their education since Pinochet introduced fees at state universities. In 1991, university support funds were set up in the 25 directly subsidised universities, but access to these is strictly means-tested. Only students from households with an income of less than $1,000 a month can apply for grants or credit. According to Agustin Squella, rector of Valparaiso University: "The large majority of students falls into the middle income bracket, so their university years are a constant struggle."

Last month Raul Allard, director of the higher education division, told the vice rectors of the 16 state and nine old private universities that to address this problem he has arranged for preferential lines of credit to be made available to students through Corfo (Corporacion de Fomento de la Produccion) and private banks. Already, second-year students and above can borrow $2,000 a year at 5 per cent per annum from three banks. These loans will be repayable over 15 years, with two years' grace allowed after graduation. Corfo will be liable for 75 per cent of any unrecoverable loans.

Mr Allard also met the council of rectors last month to discuss the separate funding bill for which they lobbied parliament last June. Pinochet slashed traditional subsidies to state universities and left them on the brink of collapse when he stepped down in 1990.

Since then the Democratic Coalition governments of Aylwin (1990-93) and now Frei have been committed to tempering Pinochet's ruthless monetarism with social investment. Mr Allard maintains that direct funding from the ministry of education for the 25 traditional universities has increased by 47 per cent in real terms since 1990, while funding from CONICYT (National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research), has increased by 176 per cent.

In 1992, additional grants were made available to state universities for investment projects and last year more funds were made available for research projects in priority areas. Rodrigo Roco of the Universidad de Chile Students' Union contests that "given increasing levels of debt, increasing fees, reduction of benefits and internal economy drives, state university funding has stayed the same".

He finds other figures more telling - just 0.58 per cent of gross domestic product is spent on the whole higher education system.

The perception that state universities are a substantial drain on public funds does not equate with the neo-liberal economic model successfully pursued by the government, making a return to pre-1973 funding levels unlikely.

Professor Squella is optimistic, however, that the new education minister is favourably disposed towards the higher education sector.

Another of Pinochet's policies being reversed is the hands-off opening of higher education to the private sector in 1981, leaving the market to ensure quality. There are now more than 300 higher education institutions, 60 of them universities - and only 25 publicly funded.

In March Mr Allard told El Mercurio there was a consensus that the existing regulation and quality control was insufficient and a new system would be established.

He gave assurances that this would respect the basic principles of institutional autonomy and freedom of teaching.

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