Against Neoliberalism and Privatization: State Universities Must Recover their Mission

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By Naín Nómez, Philosophy Professor of the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Master of Arts from Carleton University PHD from the University of Toronto

Translated by Anthony Rauld

The truth is that it is hard for me to even conceive of a university that is not state-owned and public.  I studied philosophy and literature in the old Pedagogical Institute, which really was a school for reflection, imagination, and community.  Then I worked at the State Technical University, where pluralism and diversity came together in a national and future-oriented project, which ended abruptly, but whose relevance for a country that still believed in utopias was not diminished.  And finally, after returning from a prolonged exile, I came back to my alma mater, which the dictatorship transformed into the Universidad de Santiago de Chile.   The University of Chile was founded in 1842, and the State Technical University was founded in 1849 as the Escuela de Artes y Oficios; then it became the Instituto Pedagógico Técnico in 1944 and in 1947 it became the State Technical University.  In 1981, under the dictatorship, both national universities were stripped of their regional campuses and were fragmented into multiple entities that became independent universities, leaving them only with their campuses in the capital.  This brief depiction reveals the importance of the history of the state universities in the country, and their diminished role assigned to them by the dictatorship, not just in the academic realm, but also in terms of their political, economic, and cultural influence in Chile.

Definitively, with the political repression and the economic changes ushered in by the obedience and homage to neoliberalism, the state universities were reduced to their most minimal expression, to basic programs of study that were articulated as “hard sciences”; every other commitment to society, politics or to critical artistic creation was wiped out.  On the one hand you had the fragmentation of the state university system, and on the other you had an empire of terror echoing through the halls, along with the eradication of all thought transgressive to the savage modernization goals of the new institutional structure imposed by the dictatorship and by the Chicago Boys.  In this same context, the military government’s support for a few private universities linked to the church led to a bonanza that allowed them to increase their influence and develop direct and indirect economic incentives, which positioned them as a relevant force within the national education system, with all of the restrictions that characterize it today.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the situation for the state universities did not improve, but in fact, it got worse.  Globalization and the commodification of culture were definitively crowned, and private universities sprang up like mushrooms in search of consumers.  The two large national universities were broken apart into 18 universities during Pinochet’s dictatorship, 16 of which were regional campuses.  This system also incorporated the nine traditional private universities that existed before 1973.  Between 1990 and today, 34 new private universities were created, most by businessmen who had already consolidated themselves by creating for-profit primary schools.  The Chilean higher education system, then, includes 61 universities, making Chile one of the countries with the most universities relative to number of inhabitants.  As we all know, a major reason for our substandard quality of education has to do with the privatization and mercantilization of the system, which produces economic and social segregation.  Until now, it has been very difficult to establish universal quality parameters for institutions that function according to the law of supply and demand, market fragmentation, profit maximization and the massification of demand, without effective control from the state, which chooses to invest in client-students and ignores the quality of the educational programs.

What we have today is a “pool” of institutions with monumental differences in terms of orientation, budget, student/faculty quality, enrollment system, competitiveness, and educational project.  The explosive growth of student coverage, which might be considered a merit of the system, has converted: a large mass of students into illiterates with diplomas, our directors into marketing specialists, and our faculty into writers of useless, albeit indexed, articles.  We are faithful disciples of the global north, which extols a standardized global system of higher education in which the state disappears, while the programs and courses are modeled after the market.

In a system that emerged as an appendage of the law of neocapitalist competition, the state universities were left over as an anachronistic expression of free thought, universal tuition-free education, and the university as a place for reflection and societal contribution.  With less than 15% of direct state funding, universities decreased their number of students and had to survive by competing for enrollment and limiting undergraduate and graduate programs, especially in the social sciences and humanities, which were the historically less competitive ones, but the most fundamental for articulating the kind of country we want.

What is at stake today is whether or not, after almost 45 years, our state universities can recover the essence of what they are as educational projects: public, universal, tuition free and pluralist.  No university limited to only one vision, whether it be confessional, sectorial, or part of a political grouping, is really in a position to implement a project that benefits society in the fields of culture, research, or for the advancement of democracy; nor can it be a factor in promoting equality in a society so discriminatory like our own.  In this sense, the state university must return to the promotion of culture, and to the generation of contemporary ideas, and ideas for the times to come.  This is why it is not only research in the “exact” or “hard” sciences that we need, but also the renovation of the fields of social science and humanities; we must ensure that our students learn not only how to work with machines and technology, but also how to think and create in a world that has been amplified, but also atrophied, by the virtual. The market-university is not a university, it is a flea market.  To create and to innovate in an era of images and of information overload must be understood as a challenge more than a problem.  But for this to happen, we need a state that is able to get behind our universities, politically, economically, and culturally, and not continue to abandon them to the whims of the neo and post liberal market.

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