Obstacles and possibilities of a reform

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Carlos Ruiz Encina, Head of the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences Universidad de Chile

The educational reform represents a social and political scenario in which numerous interests meet and face one another. At the same time, these interests are varied and contradictory. If this state of affairs is taken into consideration, the only possibility of advancing effective transformations would involve openly struggling against them. However, this task turns out to be impossible since, in the last decades, the interests behind education and its business have been conveniently concealed focusing on groups that seem to keep apart from public debate on the reform.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to assume that the educational reform constitutes an opportunity to reconstruct horizons for Chilean society -beyond the strictly technical matters to which it is intended to be reduced- inasmuch as it also opens an opportunity to reconstruct politics and public debate so as to overcome the increasing abyss between State and society. For the reform to reach transforming strength, it is necessary, among other things, to unveil and reveal those interests behind education. This is no minor task if we bear in mind the present legitimacy crisis concerning politics and its weakened capacity to process this and other conflicts.

The education field in Chile has undergone a strong expansion in the last decades. Concerning higher education, such expansion has overwhelmingly been in private hands, which have reached over 80% of enrollments, and which are mostly characterized -except for a few cases- by a high cost and low quality offer. State and traditional institutions have lost their impact on enrollment leading to a progressive weakening of public education.

While enrollment has increased, the number of institutions linked to private higher education has decreased. That is, there has been a concentration process that has been configuring a field dominated by great controllers. Similar to what happens in other areas of privatized public services such as health and pensions, such controllers represent interests of varied nature but what they have in common is their capacity of influencing and exerting  pressure when the time comes to discuss proposals and make political decisions.  Higher education, thus, finds itself controlled by capital from foreign groups, such as Laureate, entrepreneur organizations such as the Confederación de Producción y del Comercio (CPC), (Production and Business Confederation) and even from the Catholic Church. This new private sector imposes its interests upon these expanding mercantile niches that are in the end protected by state subsidies. The favoured way to achieve this has been the colonization of political policy and its actors, course of action that has intensified in full democracy.

Examples of the form these private interests have adopted concerning state policy can be observed in figures like Pilar Armanet (PPD) (Party for Democracy), head of the Higher Education Division during Ricardo Lagos’s government and spokeswoman of Bachelet’s first presidential term. Later she directed one of the largest private institutions in the country, Universidad de las Américas; and she became President of the Corporación de Universidades Privadas (CUP), (Private Universities Corporation), which gathers the lowest quality and worst accreditation institutions, many of which are being investigated for profit-making. In the Corporación de Universidades Privadas (CUP) Pilar Armanet shares the board with Hugo Lavados (DC) (Christian Democracy), Michelle Bachelet’s Economy Minister from 2008 to 2010, and, at present, President of Universidad San Sebastián. What these ties have in common, in which there is a State-private revolving door, is power that is not transparently expressed, that turns out to be almost invisible for ordinary people, and that neither proposes ideas nor defends positions overtly in the public debate.  It is a power that acts by means of filling up the regulators’ and technicians’ space through direct lobbying with the Government. Thus, this type of relationship has promoted an artificial technical style of discussion that is useful to their ends, setting up obstacles to the possibility of having wide-ranging and democratic deliberations.

The above mentioned has brought about an educational market that -despite the fact of being a private business that makes a plea for individuals’ freedom of choice in educational proposals- paradoxically does not run the risks that free competition has since it is based on regulated accumulation niches, captive markets, sheltered by state incentives that turn out to be perverse such as free tuition subsidies or vouchers and the Crédito con Aval del Estado (CAE) (State-guaranteed loan), which is distributed among banks and  enrolled institutions.

As is well-known, social thought warns that modern markets go beyond the traditional pre-capitalist profit-making business. Since earnings depend on the creation of market value and competition, entrepreneurs do not focus on the simple business of “buying cheap and selling expensive” profit-making but rather on active creation of value, to the point of generating a new earning ethics. It is here that modern entrepreneurship breaks away from aristocracy or from ordinary swindles since it pursues the increase of production values and with this the rationalization and improvement of its activity. This is modern economy ethics.

Higher education economists have linked the added value in education to its “quality”. However, even from such a mercantile perspective, the absence of quality observed in massive private and profit-making education shows that markets’ virtuous effects do not happen in Chile. Therefore, ours is a sui generis mercantilism. It benefits institutions that do not need to invest in quality since their main accumulation sources come from the state, which are regulated by a socioeconomic focalization and not by quality. That is why they find it more suitable to focus their attempts on lobbying and exerting pressure on state authorities. The outcome is a private income -on the basis of public resources- which increases and does not offer quality. In the end, a great swindle at the cost of families and the State.

This harsh diagnosis cannot be reduced to the right-left axis. The Higher Education business and its interests do not only involve traditional right parties or the Christian Democracy conservativeness, as usually presented. Independently from the existence of transforming positions within the Concertación, parties belonging to this coalition, self-declared to be progressive, such as PPD, gather several of the main profit-making agents) in Chilean education revealing an organic link between private interests and the Concertación itself.

This mixture of interests explains the hegemony of a massive and profit-making private education. The pressure exerted by these interest groups have allowed for an imposition of an “equality of treatment” between state and private entities. Interest groups have also contributed to putting an end to basic subsidies turning them into basic ones on the basis of performance -which are neither base subsidies nor assigned by performance- which are negotiated and assessed.  They have allowed what is essential in higher education financing to be reduced to the voucher –cunningly called ‘free tuition fees’ and their amount to be fixed by controlled technocracies that are financed by the state budget, of free disposal, and with high salaries. In this scenario, the capacity of academic staff and institutions in charge of designing policies for institution development and enrollment procedures has been taken away.

Universidad de Chile has a special responsibility for the future of higher education. Under conditions of scant political leadership and of contradictory interests, a demand arises: collaborating to design a general future plan that hinders several partial reforms lacking general planning. And, at the same time, there is another need: proposing a possible path that can lead to an effective, although inevitably gradual, transformation that is able to begin reversing 40 years of neoliberal advances of education in general and of higher education in particular. Apart from proposing sensible future plans, our institution leadership strongly needs -avoiding sterile inflexible maximalism- to safeguard this historic possibility that the clamor of society has opened up. Its culmination cannot be reached immediately; and this consideration must direct our efforts, leading to a progressive process of dismantling mercantilism from Higher Education and of reconstructing a public and democratic hegemony over it.

One of the crucial actions needed to start this process is an increase in public enrollment. This requires consensus as to the need for designing a mixed system –state and private- but with public hegemony concerning enrollment. An increase in public and free vacancies -controlled in a collaborative and serious way- that improves quality and teaching. Together with this, the academic staff of those institutions that are more productive in terms of culture and research in the country should grow in number. Under a gradual transition policy, the resources needed may come from direct contribution –determined by a new law and not via voucher- or from other areas that the budget laws contemplate. It is possible to expect public institutions to have at least 50% of the Higher Education entire enrollment figures at the end of the decade.

When taking that line of action one should be cautious about running a risk:  in defending public, free, and quality education, it is possible to end up forgetting students –and their families- who have had major difficulties to have access to this unregulated and swindling system. These new students are the ones that remain in more uncertain situations and it is here where corporative resistance from state universities can go against our goal. In order to protect those students who are more exposed to the poor and expensive educational offer, state institutions should show their public vocation. At this stage of the conflict, it is well known that public vocation is not considered as an a priori attribute so it must be demonstrated in front of society. Collaborating with this process is a task one finds difficult to leave aside. This process requires a student mobility national plan that guarantees the right to education to students who are have enrolled at private institutions that are under investigation for profit-making, low accreditation levels and that are running the risk of being closed down. As a complementary formula to the enrollment increase in public education, such students could continue their studies at universities belonging to the Consejo de Rectores (National Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities). They could do so directly and exercise their own right to do it, graduating with a degree from the university they transferred to. The State should provide resources so that universities can complete this task. This does not require a law; it just suffices that work should be done together by education social actors and the government.

Finally, it is necessary to go ahead with regulation and internal democratization of private institutions. It is necessary to establish an effective control of state contributions given to the private sector -through Contraloría (National Audit Office), transparency, an end to profit-making, etc. – and of the institutions that get those contributions since students’ grants will not immediately cease to exist. Similarly, a democratization of Higher Education must start to establish the participation not only of students but also of the entire community within the institutions. General participation -academics included- in planning internal policies is very low. It is not possible to start a real change without democratization (the fact that DFL2 was repealed is an advance on this, but it is insufficient). In state institutions, the participation of academics, administrative staff, and students in government bodies has to be safeguarded. And an effort should be made to find ways to get these models be adopted by institutions that collaborate with public service, especially private ones.

The obstacles and difficulties for an effective education reform in our country are nowadays considerable, but there are possibilities; and also there is the need for finding ways to make advances. Universidad de Chile has a leadership responsibility in an educational change in our country, in the public sense that society has openly demanded.

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