State Universities: An Indispensible Role in the Country’s Development


By Jorge Pinto Rodríguez, PHD. Social Sciences Department of the Universidad de la Frontera de Temuco. Recipient of the 2012 National Award in History.

Translated by Anthony Rauld

From the founding of the Republic, the authorities that took control of the government were particularly interested in education.  Since that time, they understood that it was a central driver of progress and happiness.  For this reason, the state committed itself to providing the resources necessary for education, as well as for the institutions that made it possible.  Education became a state project, and it projected itself past the middle of the 20th century, sharing the system with private learning institutions that, although dependant on various sources for their financing, were also aided by the state as part of a global effort to provide inhabitants with the best education possible.

In this context, the Universidad de Chile was founded in 1842.  From that moment on, our main higher learning institution committed itself firmly to educating the country by training professionals, developing research initiatives, and projecting its work throughout Latin America.  In 1889, during the administration of José Manuel Balmaceda, the Instituto Pedagógico was founded, which reflected the Universidad de Chile’s commitment to the formation of teachers, a responsibility that was shared with the Escuelas Normales de Preceptores y Preceptoras (schools for the training of teachers), which gave our education system so much prestige.

Since then, the state took up its responsibility for education on two fronts: the first one had to do with the formation of new generations of students who were attending primary and secondary schools, as well as universities; and the second entailed the preparation of teachers who would go on to contribute to that formation.  Later on, in 1947, the Universidad Técnica del Estado was founded, along with its Instituto Pedagógico in 1948, heirs to the Escuela de Artes y Oficios de Santiago, the Escuelas de Minas del Norte, and the Escuelas Industriales del Sur.

However, the work of our state universities went far beyond that.  First, the Universidad de Chile, and then the Universidad Técnica del Estado, beginning in the middle of the 20th century, opened their doors to all scientific talents, humanists, and creators, who in some cases became Chile’s leaders.  If we go back to the 19th century, names like Andrés Bello, Ignacio Domeyko, Diego Barros Arana, José Joaquín Aguirre, Juvenal Hernández, Roberto del Rio, Amanda Labarca, Armando Roa and Eugenio González, represent the fruits of what a state university education could accomplish, inspired by the liberty of each professor and student.

Another unequaled figure of the 20th century was professor Daniel Martner.  During the 1920’s, he brought together diverse figures in order to transform them into public servants, capable of developing the social and economic reforms that Chile required.  He was president of the Universidad de Chile between 1927 and 1928, and he spent time in Germany with Pedro Aguirre Cerda, authoring two books that revealed the future president’s commitment to his country.  The first one was about industry, and the second about agriculture.

That was the atmosphere in which Pedro Aguirre Cerda, Salvador Allende, Pablo Neruda, Eduardo Frei Montalva, Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, Radomiro Tomic, Bernardo Leighton, Eugenio González, Juan Gómez Millas, Olga Poblete, Ricardo Lagos, and so many other figures were able to study and, thanks to the state’s commitment to its universities, pave the way for the rest of us during the 20th century—interrupted only by the dictatorship.  The Universidad Técnica del Estado, meanwhile, included figures like university president Enrique Kirberg, Victor Jara, Isabel Parra and Sergio Campos.

Years later, when higher education began its regionalization process, the Universidad Técnica founded different campuses in Antofagasta, Copiapó, La Serena, Concepción, Temuco, and other cities around the country.  In 1960, the Universidad de Chile began to expand throughout the country, creating regional campuses in the north and in the south, enabling countless young students to incorporate themselves into the university system.

It was the state that made all of this possible.  With its resources, our universities grew considerably; they were inspired by the values of liberty, non-discrimination, and by their commitment to the development of the country.  It is undeniable that it was also possible thanks to private institutions of higher, many of them supported by the state; until 1973, however, the focus was primarily on its two main higher learning institutions: the Universidad de Chile and the Universidad Técnica del Estado.  Thanks to this policy direction, education became tuition free and was at the service of the young, and of the country as a whole.  The profit motive was simply unacceptable when it came to education, an activity that some today believe can be traded on the market as if it were a commodity.

Concerned and often distressed, we observe that state universities have been treated very differently these last years.  Submitted to market rules, their resources are conditioned by a system of production that seeks to standardize them in relation to international institutions, which are evaluated by indicators that often do not reflect the real interests of the local context.   We realize, often with amazement, how difficult it is to research areas that the market considers to be less relevant or that can prove damaging to certain local interests, which are potential donors.

Despite all of this, those of us who work in state universities are still inspired by the values that gave rise to these institutions in the first place.  We often have to submit to the demands of those who seek to transform our institutions into “diploma factories” and producers of indicators, imposed by interest groups who do not fully understand what liberty entails; nor do they understand the contributions made by artists, humanists, men and women of the sciences when they are freed from a system that seeks to transform them into producers of goods moved by self interest and competition, and away from the university ideal.

Chile needs to change course.  We need to listen to professors, teachers, students, to the university staff, and to the authorities that direct our universities. The demands of the state university community are not siren songs; they represent the hopes of those who at one time joined their faculties for the rest of their lives.  And this is not an attack on private universities.  We must say it until we are exhausted: they have made indisputable contributions, but these are motivated by interests that, whether they be a commitment to religion or to groups that profit from their activities, are different from those that articulate state universities.  When the state diverts resources and benefits towards these interests, at the expense of its own universities, that is a mistake, which must be corrected.

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