Chile's universities set for some turmoil on long road to reform

Bumps are expected in decade-long shift away from market-based system

May 21, 2015


Source: Getty

Unrest: students protests continue

Chile’s universities face an uncertain decade ahead as the government revamps the higher education system.

On a recent visit to the UK, the head of the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH) said that the changes are now past the point of no return because the country’s population has “big expectations” of what lies ahead.

But with the system’s final shape up in the air, academics in research universities have raised concerns about how research will be funded.

The momentum for change is undeniable. Last year, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, unveiled tax reforms designed to fund free education for all. And anger at corruption in the country’s market-driven higher education sector has been the subject of mass student protests on the streets of Santiago since 2011.

At school level, laws have been introduced to ban selective admissions. But legislation for higher education has yet to be finalised and students are keeping up the pressure, with protests as recently as 14 May leading to the deaths of two demonstrators.

On a recent visit to Britain hosted by the UK Higher Education International Unit, academics from CRUCH universities told Times Higher Education that the protests were likely to continue throughout Ms Bachelet’s current term (which runs until 2018) because changing higher education will take at least a decade.

María Teresa Marshall, executive director of Chile’s council of rectors, said: “It is not going to be very easy because there is such a big expectation of the population.”

Transformation will require “deep reforms” of the system of public and private universities, she said, adding that quality assurance, regulation and admissions all need overhauls.

There is a great deal to do, she said, but she was optimistic because “Chilean society needs the change”.

Higher education has been ruled by the market, but “it cannot be like that any more because education is a civil right”, she said. “Chile is a very segregated society…if we want to have more social mobility [and] more equal opportunities…the only way is to change education.”

Marcos Avilez, director of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso, said that under the proposed system there will be a limit on the amount of money that universities receive for each student. “But our universities are not only teaching; we are research universities,” he said. It is already tough to win resources in Chile’s competitive research funding system, he said. “Probably in the future it will be more difficult. We are not sure if there is going to be big change in the way [Chile] is going to finance the research system. It is a concern,” he said.

Professor Marshall said that there are discussions about how core funding for other parts of university missions, such as research and community outreach, will be funded. “Both at the right moment need to come together, [otherwise] it is going to unbalance the financial state of the universities,” she said.

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