World insight: Chile has made huge higher education strides, but must invest in technology

Rather than scrapping fees, universities in the country should invest the money in developing their research, says Cristián Larroulet

December 18, 2015

Fifty years ago, Chile had only eight universities. Today, the country has 45 accredited schools.

We are world leaders in allocating private and public resources to tertiary education with an investment of 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product (the average rate for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries is 1.6 per cent) and, along with South Korea, have increased higher education coverage the fastest over the past 30 years.

Arguably the most impressive aspect of this is that it was achieved through a system of scholarships and credits which, though imperfect, allowed access to higher education for the poorest 20 per cent of students to increase from just 2.7 per cent in 1990 to 27.4 per cent today. Chile provides more access to higher education for needy families than any other country in Latin America, including those that offer free tuition, and it even outperforms developed nations such as France, Germany and England.

Since the 1980s, the government’s role of designing policies, allocating resources, establishing regulations, and providing services has been complemented by the creation and administration of private universities, professional institutes and technical training centres by various civil society organisations. 

We created a system that considers competition and cooperation, and achieved a significant leap forward in the quality of higher education. Institutions such as the University of Chile and Pontifical Catholic University of Chile perform well in university rankings at the Latin American level, and both public and private Chilean universities are leaders in specific fields.

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Chile must not, however, be complacent. Rather, we must be capable of seeing the glass half full while also engaging in a solid assessment of the enormous challenges that the future poses.

The current administration has proposed universal free higher education. However, I believe that this would be an error and would have a negative effect on the challenge of achieving better income distribution in Chilean society. Chile was the first country in Latin America to introduce tuition payments for public tertiary education institutions, and the income from these fees should be used to improve the quality of the scientific and academic research conducted by our university system.

For example, there is an urgent need to increase investment in science and technology. Progress in these areas has been questioned over the course of the past decade, particularly by students and administrators from the majority of the traditional universities.

In a world of profound technological changes that have a significant impact on higher education, the reforms that Chile needs must take up the same principles and policies that allowed for the progress that has been made over the past few decades.

Cristián Larroulet is co-founder of the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD) in Chile, and was minister secretary-general of the Presidency of Chile between 2010 and 2014.

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