The State Universities Bill: A New Voice Emerges in the National Debate

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After the vote to initiate the legislative debate, the Chamber of Deputies began to discuss the state universities reform bill during the last week of September, with hopes that it may include the modifications put forward by state-owned universities, and by the University of Chile particularly, to the reform that seeks to strengthen these higher education institutions.  Although the actors who are involved in this discussion recognize that the bill constitutes progress towards valorizing these state institutions, there are still many uncertainties as to whether the proposed law will provide solutions to the more pressing issues that state universities face.

By Jennifer Abate C.

Translated by Anthony Rauld

Ten votes in favor, one against, and one abstention marked the approval to legislate the current state universities bill, on September 5th of this year, an initiative that these higher learning institutions have been waiting for, universities that since 1981 have suffered the onslaughts of state under-financing, and of the competition for enrollment and resources with private universities.

Because the reform bill helps state universities overcome their abandonment, the President of the University, Ennio Vivaldi, recognized it as a sign of progress, and expressed in a letter to El Mercurio: “The university presidents and the state university communities have supported the redaction of a law that defines and distinguishes them.  The Chilean state must assume its responsibility as a provider of higher education and as a facilitator of academic activity.  From the beginning, we have felt encouraged by the government’s move to redeem public education, and to reverse the extensive efforts made to diminish, distort, and denaturalize it.”

At the same time, the evolution of this project, announced on June 2 by the President of the Republic, has been difficult.  In its original form, the project failed to recognize in three fundamental areas the special status that a state university has, including its constitution and its particular point of view: autonomy and participation (of the university community), the status of its workers, and the system of tuition and financing.

Faced with a scenario that was damaging to the institution, since the proposed law required modification of university statutes that had been generated after the dictatorship (in a democratic period) and with the participation of the entire university community, the University of Chile launched an internal process of reflection that sought to generate real proposals for the modification of the original bill so that the future law coincides with university autonomy.  The main actions undertaken by the university were organized by the Institutional Coordination Committee (CCI), an initiative formed in October 2016, and whose objectives are: to coordinate between the various institutional bodies, and with the University President, the University Council, the Evaluation Council, and the University Senate.

The CCI communicated the University of Chile’s disapproval with the proposed reform by organizing concerts that were open to the public (in Plaza Italia), activities of reflection on different campuses, and a massive gathering at the Salón de Honor of the main campus of the University of Chile, where more than two thousand faculty, staff, and students gathered to express the need to introduce modifications to the reform bill.

The Minister of Education acknowledged the initiative and the government withdrew the reform bill from the Senate, and presented it to the Chamber of Deputies, which opened up an opportunity to present modifications for a real strengthening of state universities.  The debate concerning modifications began in late September, and at press time, things were still uncertain, as the following opinions show.  These opinions correspond to the representatives of the Institutional Coordination Committee of the University of Chile.

Ennio Vivaldi, University President of the University of Chile

Throughout this entire process, the university presidents and the state university communities have always supported reform legislation capable of strengthening and distinguishing state-owned universities.  Consequently, it was no surprise that these universities, along with their communities, would mobilize in order to improve the original version of the reform bill.  The objective was to make sure that this Chilean law finally reflected the state’s responsibility as provider of higher education and as the main driver of research, innovation, and community outreach.

The University of Chile took on a leading role in these initiatives.  This role was expressed through various cultural activities in public spaces, activities of reflection and dialogue, many visits to the National Congress in order to present our points of view, and a massive march down Alameda Ave.  The state universities entered the public debate as a new force for dialogue, and for the proposal of ideas, and they are motivated by the desire to achieve the kind of reform law that can truly represent the institutions and their communities, and can truly pave the way for a university system based on autonomy and participation, with a strengthened concept of university community: a substantial increase in enrollment, a stable system of financing, and a better system of collaboration between all state universities and with the rest of the public in order to achieve transcendental, strategic, national and regional objectives.

The most important fact: we have achieved great things.  People now have a different perception of what state universities are, and political actors have a new willingness to help bring about the changes that will strengthen them.

Maria Olivia Monckeberg, Director of the Comunicación e Imagen Department, Recipient of the National Award for Journalism

What we have today is not what I would have hoped in terms of strengthening state universities.  For a university like the University of Chile, which has a democratic institutionality, built with a lot of university participation, the reform bill, the way it was presented originally—and before all of the University President’s conversations with government authorities, the meetings with Minister Delpiano, and the interventions in Congress—would have been truly disastrous: it was an attack on university autonomy and it would have subjected the university solely to technical criteria.  Although the situation has improved during these last weeks, and we were hoping to include important developments into this edition, I am afraid we have still not received a true commitment in relation to the strengthening of our universities.  There is still no word on an effective increase in our operational budget, and no increase in student enrollment has been considered—today only 14% of all higher education undergraduates are enrolled in a public university—no support for the expansion of research or creation either.  I think—also—that the underlying logic of a reform bill like this one is the idea that it is necessary to separate administration from academia, which is also what happens in the healthcare industry when they try to separate doctors from the administration of medical facilities; it is important to debunk that idea, because it is not the case that only managers understand how to administer resources, which is what they want people to believe.  And that is one of the troubling aspects of this current reform bill.  Similarly, there is an undertone throughout the bill that reveals a certain mistrust of state universities and their communities, and that is why it tries to incorporate government representatives into the university’s governing bodies—which they now call councils—without comprehending the real meaning of university autonomy.  What is troubling about all this is that in order to develop and to consolidate our democracy, the country needs strong public universities that have the autonomy capable of guaranteeing that strength.

Roberto Aceituno, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences

It is important to understand the current bill in terms of the political context of the broader higher education reform project.  Since this project approached the reform by emphasizing tuition-free higher education, without any differentiation of or special consideration for state public universities, it was ultimately consolidating the current system, and not really reforming it.  In my opinion, a genuine reform effort cannot be based on demand-side subsidies, as reflected in tuition-free mechanisms, while ignoring the differences between public and private institutions; setting it up this way ends up strengthening the private system—by adding state resources to the capital accumulated by the private university—which provides 85% of the total enrollment in the higher education system.  At the same time, by not favoring an enrollment increase for public institutions—regulating what should be applied to private companies—and worse yet, by not providing direct resources to the universities that belong to the state, especially those in the peripheral regions, the reform abandons these universities (to fend for themselves) in a country that is ultimately privatized to the extreme.  The logic of the tuition-free model only makes sense in a system where public higher education, i.e. state-owned, is strengthened.  This is not the case.

Héctor Díaz, President of the National Faculty Association of the University of Chile

As was to be expected, our university assumed a central role in the democratic discussion of the initiative, leading the movement that opposes the state universities bill, and becoming the only institution that has not only rejected the terms of the government’s initiative, but also demonstrated our capacity to consolidate alternative proposals.  But beyond this, the reform bill currently under discussion does not contemplate a proposal of financing for state-owned universities.  In this bill, which includes last minute modifications incorporated by the Ministry of Education, there is neither mention nor initiatives related to this, and we are all very aware that without a commitment for more economic resources, it will be impossible for the state university education system, made precarious and mistreated since the 1980’s, to survive.

Myriam Barahona, President of the Federation of Worker Associations of the University of Chile

The University of Chile has played a central role during this whole process of discussion regarding the new state universities bill; its community has brought attention to the importance of having democratic and participative institutions, as well as a financing system conducive to the development of all of the university’s academic and outreach capabilities, which are essential for the overall development of the country.  In terms of work conditions, we have come to understand that university staff must enjoy a comprehensive career experience, with wages that are appropriate to their function, and where we feel worthy of being members of the university staff.

Today we prove that we have a loud and clear voice, relevant and brave; the non-academic staff, the faculty, and the students believe that we have a moral obligation towards the people of Chile to defend future generations and their vision for a democratic, plural, and human society.

Cecilia Hidalgo, President of the Evaluation Council, Recipient of the National Award for Natural Sciences

It is evident that not all state universities have the same level of development in our country.   For this reason, it seems to me that the State University Coordinator, proposed in this new bill, is of vital importance, since it would allow for the exchange of knowledge and disciplines, and would also make it possible to share scientific work and generate new knowledge in all areas of human activity, which undoubtedly would contribute to new practices of innovation as well.

This proposed network, if approved in the final version of the law, would allow for a robust connection between all of the state universities in the different regions of Chile, which would contribute to the development of the country not only in economic terms, but also socially and culturally.

Davor Harasic, Dean of the Law School

Beyond the government’s stated goal of strengthening state universities, the contents of the government’s bill are built on the foundations of a slogan.  The government’s proposals strengthen the state’s capacity to intervene in the universities by refusing to treat them as what they really are: autonomous institutions that are free from government control, a necessary condition for a public institution, which is their essence.

There are two fundamental pillars of the reform bill that are particularly problematic: financing and university government structure.  First, the resources promised in the bill are not enough, and there is no plan to improve or increase public enrollment.  Second, there are no objective criteria established for the distribution of these resources.  Will universities be chosen for their quality, their number of students, their historic needs, or will it be the prerogative of whoever happens to be in the government?  This remains an open question, but the incentives are placed in such as way as to favor those institutions that are less critical of the status quo.  With respect to the structure of university governments, there is an interventionist bias that is reflected in the number of external representatives (particularly those of the government) that would form part of the main governing body, a clear risk of undue government influence.

Guillermo Soto, Vice-President of the University Senate

The state universities reform bill is commendable as a reflection of the renewed commitment towards state universities; it represents a significant advance with respect to the condition of relative isolation we have experienced during these last decades.  Furthermore, the modifications introduced recently by the state improve upon the original reform project.  The collaborative work between the community and the authorities of the University of Chile, including the University Senate, no doubt contributed significantly to these modifications.  Two examples of the bill’s positive aspects include: incorporation of the different levels of university government, and the creation of a state university network.

Some deficiencies still remain, and these must be remedied during the debate in congress.  Two of these are especially relevant: the increase in student enrollment, and the protection of university autonomy.  We believe that in order to progress towards a system that is truly mixed, the bill must establish as a national strategic objective a mechanism to increase student enrollment in the state universities of every region, until enrollment reaches, at least, the levels of the rest of the system.

Meanwhile, the bill puts forward a conception of state university autonomy that is more limited than the conception of autonomy that currently exists, which includes not just academic autonomy, but also economic and administrative autonomy.  We believe that this indication should be eliminated, so that state universities can maintain the kind of autonomy already recognized by the General Law of Education.

*The president of the FECH was approached on various occasions in order to include his opinions on the matter, but we were unable to make this collaboration happen.

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