In the national debates of recent years, it has become clear that one of the central issues that concerns Chilean society is education.
The higher education reform bill presented by the Chilean government has been under discussion for about four years. The last reform took place more than 37 years ago, in 1981. Since then, the system has grown and changed considerably.
Despite the pressure that has been placed on securing this reform and its objectives – quality education with greater equality and with an emphasis on the creation of new knowledge – the bill includes some disconcerting elements that are of great concern.
An explicit review of the context of the reform has been persistently omitted, meaning that there is no outline of a future vision regarding what is expected of Chile’s higher education system and no analysis of its main challenges.
As a priority, improvements are needed to better define concepts such as the public role of universities and to provide more autonomy to universities, equal treatment of institutions that contribute to the public sphere, better regulation of the system, and adequate student financing and funding of higher education institutions.
The reforms must also foster the development of state and regional universities and review the current status and relevance of technical and professional education.
At present, there is no clear definition of the broad and diverse higher education system that we want for our country. We have not advanced in crafting a consensus on the public role of a university. There has been a tendency to describe it only from the logic of ownership and, therefore, to reference only state universities.
However, private institutions also have a public role and greatly contribute to national development.
The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, for instance, is devoted to research and the education of students who gather freely with their professors, all motivated by the same love of knowledge. Like other universities of a Catholic nature, we are also distinguished by our free pursuit of the truth about nature, man and God. Thus, permanent effort is placed on promoting excellence in the generation of new knowledge and in the education of people, along with strengthening our Catholic identity. This allows us to bolster our academic body, increase the admission of the best students from different sectors of society, conduct frontier research and innovation, and increase internationalisation and society engagement.
The Christian inspiration of our university poses the challenge of assessing the achievements of science, art, humanities and technology in the global perspective of humankind.
The diversity of Chile’s higher education system also requires broad institutional freedom, so that each university contributes from its own mission and identity – something the reform must address.
This improves the quality and inclusivity of education and ensures that a broad range of views and approaches are present on campuses. This in turn leads to a more democratic and integrated country.
The higher education reforms must enhance the mission and identity of institutions, while reviewing the substantive contributions that universities make to society.
In this context, priorities include the promotion of ethics in higher education; innovation in the curriculum and teaching methods; and measures to make institutions more inclusive, with an emphasis on the access and retention of vulnerable students and those who have special educational needs.
In the field of research, there is an important trend towards innovation, tech transfer and entrepreneurship, including the active participation of undergraduate and postgraduate students who interact fluidly with professors and researchers.
Reforms could help encourage universities in Chile to increase the internationalisation of such projects by creating networks among researchers and institutions in different nations.
Such an approach would help Chile’s universities to build a better country together.
Ignacio Sánchez Díaz is president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.