For the past four years, the University of Chile has been actively engaged in a national debate concerning the country’s education system. As promised by the government installed in 2014, congress and society were asked to analyse and modify the drastic changes that were introduced to higher education by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the early 1980s.
Those changes – which included a laissez-faire policy for private universities and the creation of a state fund for institutions that admit top-performing students – had gone unchallenged for decades.
As a result of the discussions, two new laws were enacted: one approved free higher education for poor students and increased regulation of the quality of higher education; the other doubled the budget assigned to public universities, reduced bureaucracy for those institutions and recognised the specific qualities of public universities.
Before these reforms, principles that are almost universally accepted as major goals of public universities had, to a large extent, been forgotten in Chile.
These characteristics include universities’ contribution to social cohesion through pluralism and inclusion; the quality and pertinence of their graduates; the sense of citizenship that they instil; their responsibility for cultural heritage; and their contribution to nationally and locally relevant research and innovation.
This conventional understanding of public education had been challenged in Chile by a system that saw for-profit institutions receive state subsidies on equal terms with not-for-profit and public institutions. This ideological framework did much damage to Chile’s public primary and secondary education system.
The University of Chile, on the other hand, continued to play a dominant role in the country’s higher education landscape, despite the adverse political context.
That resilience is partly for deep-rooted historical reasons. An apt metaphor for the role that the University of Chile has played since its creation in 1842 is that of a building crane for the construction of a new republic.
The university has constantly engaged itself in national projects that are beyond the tasks expected of universities in other latitudes: it was directly involved in laying the foundations of Chile’s public education system and national health system, the movement for women’s right to vote, the eradication of infant malnutrition, and the creation of the National Symphony Orchestra, to name a few examples.
Faced with an “every man for himself” environment at odds with the university’s founding values, the University of Chile did not capitulate or adapt, but rather played a role in changing that context.
It helped to end the military intervention and, after the return of democracy, it produced new by-laws in an exceptional act of disobedience to Pinochet’s legacy. These included the introduction of a new university council representing both staff and students (Pinochet had forbidden student participation in university governance).
The student movement of 2011, which sought to end for-profit education, startled the country and made inevitable the recent discussions about its university system.
The student voice forced the debate to consider not only an ideological, value-driven perspective of the higher education model, but an empirical one that would consider the real impact of the new system on aspects such as student debt and learning outcomes.
During the debates, arguments often ignored the fact that the state plays at least two different roles in education: regulator and provider.
For example, the government proposed that the state should halt financial aid to students in public universities when the institution does not meet certain quality standards. Obviously, in such a case, hopefully exceptional, it would be expected that the state act immediately at the institutional level to ensure quality rather than punish students.
It also proposed that public universities should not be able to increase their enrolment if they benefit from the scrapping of tuition fees – a policy idea that would have seen the state forbid its own universities from attending to the needs of young people and society.
Both those proposals were defeated. One major achievement was the reinstallation of a council representing public universities.
In summary, the debate on higher education was extremely healthy for Chilean society.
The previous higher education model centred on the blind belief that competition would bring about better universities. In fact, collaboration and complementarity are needed to solve the complex scientific, technological and social problems that Chile faces.
Ennio Vivaldi is rector of the University of Chile.