There was no need to wait for the barrage of criticism aimed at the government’s proposed reform bill, which many key actors in the discussion over higher education in Chile believe fails to articulate the transformations that are deemed necessary by the general public. Students are pledging to maintain their mobilization active, and an economic group that controls many universities is preparing to go public, but the members of parliament have the final say in the ongoing debate to determine what kind of education system will be in effect going forward.
By Felipe Ramirez and Francisca Palma /Photo Archivo Dirección de Comunicaciones
After years of student mobilizations and months of pre-legislative work, the government presented the higher education reform bill to parliament on the 4th of July of this year.
The reform has generated a lot of expectation thanks to the numerous discussions between the Ministry of Education and the various university presidents, student organizations, experts, foundations and others; and also by the Nueva Mayoría ruling coalition’s political platform, which characterizes this proposed bill as one of the four “structural reforms” this administration would embark upon.
Despite all this, the final draft of this bill generated more criticism than praise. The different actors expressed their disagreement with the contents of the legal initiative, which for many can hardly be considered a “reform”, despite the fact that it manages to include the terms and the rhetoric that have surfaced since 2011. Although equality, access, tuition-free, quality and an end to profit-making are concepts that find their way into the legal text, they are only utilized, according to Fernanda Carvallo, director of the Center for Research of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (CEFECH), “to conceal the shortcomings of previous policies.”
Those who reject the government’s project include the presidents of the state-owned universities, who are backed by more that 40 ruling-party and independent senators and representatives that are advocating for a stronger bill that includes specific provisions capable of strengthening the state-owned higher education sector, and consolidating a complex system of teaching institutions that provide other public services
Few approve of this initiative, which is now in the hands of legislators who must decide the fate of higher education as we know it.
Reform or Adjustment?
According to Carvallo, the problem has to do with the growing distance between the expectations generated by the president’s announcement and the actual content of the bill, which casts a shadow over the pre-legislative work done by the government. In his opinion, the discussions “were useless; the presented bill failed to take a stand on behalf of anyone, leaving the real substance for the parliamentary discussion to determine, and providing only a loose framework that outlines a path for improving the main shortcomings of the system—without actually changing the underlying rationality.”
In his opinion, the project aims to tidy up the system without actually questioning its functioning paradigm, which means that it is incapable of repositioning higher education as a social right, and not just a commodity. “The reform is being thought of in terms of transition. It figures out what there is, and then tries to develop the modifications necessary for improvement, but it doesn’t want to take the system somewhere else,” affirms Carvallo emphatically.
Additionally, Carvallo warns about the absence of a mechanism that can strengthen state-owned public education, which today represents only 15% of higher education enrollment and only 25% of enrollment in the university sub-system—which does not include Technical Institutes (IT) or Professional Institutes (IP).
Similarly, Carolina Guzmán, who is an expert on higher education from the Universidad de Chile and a researcher for the Center for Advanced Research on Education (CIAE), believes that the reform bill, rather than a reform, represents an attempt to introduce a few government regulations into the current system, and to bring us closer to frameworks like that of the United States,
UK, and Australia, where “the state exercises considerable regulation in the provision of services,” and hence, “the concept of a quasi market.”
The first sign of the intention to consolidate the current system, removed from the promise of education as a social right, is the announcement that the Laureate International Universities Group, which controls the Universidad de Viña del Mar, Universidad De Las Americas, and the Universidad Andres Bello, has declared itself to be a “for profit” corporation in light of its intention to go public in the United States and be traded on the stock market.
Guzmán thinks this is a cause for concern since the profit motive is such a determining factor in the education market, and therefore he questions the government’s unwillingness to prohibit profit making in the Technical Institutes (CFT) and in the Professional Institutes (IP) who don’t apply for tuition-free status beginning in 2017.
The prolongation of the State-sponsored Credit System (CAE) for those universities who choose not to offer tuition-free enrollment is another of the project’s shortcomings, according to Camila Vallejo, a member of the Education Commission in the lower legislative chamber.
The congresswoman asserts that, “maintaining the CAE system of financing represents a willingness to continue with the logic of debt with respect to those universities that do not participate in the tuition-free program. So on top of subsidizing many private institutions through the tuition-free mechanism, the rest of the students must continue to accrue debt in order to study.”
From the congresswoman’s perspective, this is related to the fact that the project falls short of changing the model in a clear way, choosing rather to protect a system that is ultimately mixed, and failing to recover or consolidate a strong state sector capable of coordinating the system as a whole.
The former president of the Universidad de Aysén, Roxana Pey, also questions the extension of the CAE mechanism of financing—pointing out that the private sector depends on it. “With this credit, they are able to cover almost 50% of the entire higher education budget without having to answer to anybody, since students are utilized as intermediaries. A large amount of state funds runs through here and ends up in private hands,” accuses Pey, who believes that profit making in higher education is unacceptable, and that the CAE system makes possible the transfer of wealth from the state to private institutions like the Laureate Group.
State Universities and Autonomy, the Last Battle
During these last months, the former university president has been at the center of one of the biggest controversies linked to the education reform with respect to the statute that regulates future state universities.
One of the reasons cited by Minister Delpiano for Pey’s removal as president of the university included the failure to align with the government’s objectives with respect to the higher education reform bill; the Ministry of Education’s rejection of the statutes formulated by the new Universidad de Aysén was also cited as a reason for her removal—a decision that was interpreted by the university presidents of the Association of State Universities, and other actors, as an attack on the autonomy of state institutions.”
With regards to the relationship between the state and its universities, and the contents of the reform bill, Pey claims, “the substance of the bill with respect to state universities is nefarious. It sets up a governing body that is very controversial, with a board of trustees that guarantees the incumbent administration 50% control over all decisions—overshadowing organizations like the university councils, and challenging the autonomy of universities.”
The CIAE researcher coincides with this point, affirming that the incumbent government will enjoy twice the number of votes in the board of trustees established in Aysén, since the President of the Republic can appoint four members.
“The reform bill actually leaves us worse off in many respects, especially autonomy and funding. I don’t see how the state-owned universities can be strengthened through this proposal. I see a lot of state intervention, but little state funding,” affirms Guzmán.
Despite everything, congresswoman Vallejo believes that during the legislative debate, there will be room for improvement, since so many actors are raising similar concerns, and are pushing for the “decommodification of education and the strengthening of state-owned education through concrete measures, with funding mechanisms that are both permanent and which increase over time.”
Along these same lines, Carolina Guzmán warns that one area of the reform that demonstrates just how undeserving it is of the name, is the absence of one of the major demands sought by the presidents of the state universities, and by the students themselves: the funding increase for state institutions that can help to achieve the 50% private-50% public provision goal in higher education.
“The reform bill does not contemplate the strengthening of state education, and that is a serious let-down for the state universities and especially for the institutions in the provinces, which are the weakest,” affirms Guzman, establishing one of the main issues that will take center stage in the upcoming debate, and which will decide whether this is indeed a structural reform, or merely an adjustment that seeks to better regulate the misnamed higher education market.