Ironing Chile's wrinkles

March 15, 1996

I would like to add some information to your article "Chile Irons Out Market Wrinkles" (THES, December 8). The Chilean higher education system underwent great changes between 1981 and 1990. Some of these changes were necessary, and urgent - secondary education had increased enrolment from 35 per cent (1970) to 55 per cent (1980) and 79 per cent (1990) of the corresponding age group, while openings in public-funded universities remained fixed from 1975 to 1993.

It is difficult to argue against students paying fees, when most of them come from the upper income group; to keep higher education "free" meant putting an increased tax burden on people who had no chance of taking a degree.

The establishment of a three-tiered system seemed the best answer to an increasing and heterogeneous population of students wishing to enter HE.

Of course, as you point out, the strategy included strong political elements such as the disruption of the large state universities, and was based on neoliberal principles and, as such, assigned a key role to the market.

Unfortunately things did not work out quite as planned. Students and their parents tend to prefer a university degree; professional institutes and technical centres do not have any public funding, so their students, usually coming from lower-income families, must pay for full tuition. Therefore, the system is still university-oriented, and two thirds of all students are enrolled in universities (public and private).

The market is unable to ensure quality, and some institutions can get worse, offering poor services to poor students, and still survive under the laws of the market.

Thus, it was necessary to install regulatory procedures. Quality control is being exercised, and is not at all minimal, as you point out. The Higher Council for Education supervises most private universities and about half of the professional institutes, through yearly visits by academic peers, revision of financial statements, supervision or actual examination of students, and other assessment procedures. Once a year, the council writes an "Action Letter" which states the strengths and weaknesses of each institution and points out the measures they must take to continue under accreditation. If the institution does not take the necessary actions, the council can stop it enrolling new students, or can ask for its disestablishment. Up to now, two universities and three professional institutes have been closed, and seven other institutions have received different sanctions.

On the other hand, after showing that they have adequately developed their institutional plans, three universities and a few professional institutes have been certified as autonomous institutions.

The council also publishes comparative data on all degree programmes and all institutions (universities and professional institutes), thus making it easier and clearer for students to choose a career or an institution.

Public universities do not oppose evaluation. Some of the largest and most prestigious universities have worked with the council to establish self-evaluation procedures, and the Association of Medical Schools - all in public universities - has asked the council to accredit all schools of medicine in the country. This shows that, in spite of the "Chicago" strategy, regulation is gaining pace, not through legal reform, admittedly a difficult task, but through institutional conviction, which is probably a better, if slower way.

This has been achieved through a continuing involvement with quality assurance and quality control systems in Europe and the United States. We are in constant touch with the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in HE and other organisations, in order not to re-invent the wheel, but rather, to adapt existing wheels to our roads.

MARIA-JOSE LEMAITRE Secretary General Higher Council for Education Santiago, Chile

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