Harald Beyer, director of the Centro de Estudios Públicos (Center for Public Research), was one of the discussants at the Universidad de Chile’s permanent conference on state-owned higher education. The former minister of education under Sebastian Piñera’s government presented a historical overview of the university system and advocated for moving beyond the public-private polarization that underlies much of the discussion on education today.

Translated by Anthony Rauld, Department of Linguistics of the Universidad de Chile / Photo by Alejandra Fuenzalida

The research done on higher education has become more relevant over the past three or four decades. This is no accident, since it has paralleled the various tensions that the higher education systems have had to face, for different reasons—tensions that have shaped the direction of these organizations, as well as the related public policy questions.

There is, therefore, a growing interest in the fate of universities, an interest that goes beyond the short-term polemics, which are often shaped by urgency and financial issues. It’s curious, for example, that we lack a clear vision about where the university system will be 20 years from now. Some universities have made the effort, and have tried to think in the long-term. But there are still serious flaws in these reflections.

Of course, the debate has become much more complicated. There are more actors involved in the debate, and they are not just the universities and the experts, but also the citizenry. This citizenry has an opinion, a clear vision, and so it can imagine what the higher education system should look like going forward. This makes the debate about universities much more interesting and challenging.

The discussion that is going on in the world, due to the reconfiguration of the higher education system, transcends the ideologies and interests of universities as such. Of course, there is no doubt that they influence the debate, but the discussion has a much wider scope. The development of the education system itself reflects this.

As far as I know, there has never been—perhaps only with the partial exception of Sweden—a similar historical experience like that of our country’s prior to the military coup of 1973: a mixed system moving towards equal funding between public and private universities. For example, when the Consejo de Rectores de las Universidades Chilenas (The Council of University Chancellors of Chile) was founded in 1954, public funds were assigned over a period of 18 years to every single institution of higher learning according to their enrollment rates. In Chile, the public financing of private institutions was already well established in the budget by 1922. Now, if you compare this with other experiences, this kind of higher education system is quite unusual. In any event, it is important to stress that those original eight institutions seemed to share a certain university ideal. However, this seems no longer to be the case.

The university has spent 250 years trying to constitute itself as the embodiment of reason, truth, critical conscience, and deliberation, among other similar epithets.

As Derrida said, “as far as I know nobody has founded a university that is against reason; one could, consequently, think that the reason for being of a university has always been reason, and also a certain special relation of the reason for being”. The idea that the university should be an institution of research and knowledge had spread rapidly to different nations. For Ortega and Gasset, meanwhile, the goal was to educate the common man, he who acquires the skills necessary for specialization, but who is also a learned man. A third dimension regarding the university’s role has to do with its function in society. In other words, the university must assume the responsibility of being the intellectual conscience of its students. This outlook has been very influential in Latin America.

Now, in a world full of diverse and heterogeneous institutions, one must then wonder if there is a single idea that founds, justifies, or includes all of these. Or perhaps one should accept along with Habermas that “the university organizations no longer reflect one idea.”

The Expansion of Enrollment

Perhaps the most significant phenomenon within the university system after World War II is the increase in enrollment, but also the expansion of public funding in higher education proportionally speaking. In the developed countries, it went from figures near 0.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the middle 1950’s to approximately double that figure in 20 years, and tripling three decades later.

In terms of the state educational budgets, these went from reflecting less than 10% in 1950 to figures near 25% in the 1980’s, and from there they have remained relatively stable. The same phenomenon occurred in the United States: there the spending figures in higher education went from 0.35% of the GDP in 1950 to 1.3% three decades later and, practically, doubled with respect to the total education budget. In Chile, meanwhile, in 1972, spending in the higher education sector was 1.2%, but then fell to 0.3% in the 1990’s, and today has returned to 0.7%. This is a very low percentage compared to the rest of the world. Part of this 0.7% is financed with the Crédito con Aval del Estado (State-Backed Credit.)

Such a rapid development like the one occurring during this period would suggest an accompanying concern for the efficient use of the resources involved. This clearly occurs in the 1970’s in the United States, for example. In Europe, although the phenomenon was more tempered, it has still been present. Now there is a debate on whether the policies developed within the universities are responding to the society at large or aimed at ameliorating the internal conflicts that emerge in relation to university objectives, the way they are managed and organized, as well as in relation to the creation of university programs.

As a result of this situation, the demand for resources has increasingly crossed over to the private sector. Many countries, which before depended only on public resources, are shifting towards the incorporation of private funding, as the examples of Europe and the United States reveal, where the pressure to forge public-private partnerships has increased. In effect, the strategy appears to coalesce around the combination of public and private resources for the future development of higher education.

The Nordic countries have removed themselves from this tendency. They are countries that are demographically older, small, and have higher middle income tax rates. Few nations combine these three factors.

The Demand for More Resources

Now, there are two phenomena that are behind the pressure to acquire additional funding: the most visible is the massification of higher education. Between 1950 and 2000, the enrollment rate in Spain increased by a factor of 29; in Portugal, 19; in Finland, 16; in the United Kingdom, 16; in Austria, 13; and in the United States, which had one of the highest rates, the rate increased by a factor of 7. In Chile, during the same period, the enrollment rate increased fifty-fold, and between 2000 and 2010, the rate doubled. In other words, between 1950 and 2010, the higher education enrollment rate in Chile increased by a factor of 100. This sustained increase in the enrollment rates of higher education has completely changed the situation globally, but much more so in Latin America.

As a result, we are facing a really unique situation where the higher education system is experiencing an evolutionary change like never before.

Chile has a particularity, which is today part of the debate: 84% of the university market is private. Few countries in the world have this structure. In Latin America, only El Salvador and Belize share this characteristic. For most of the region, state universities are the rule—Argentina being a clear example.

What explains this? The simple answer is the increase in enrollment, but it is also a matter of how the state has defined its role, which occurred without much reflection. Public spending in higher education had first declined, and has slowly picked up during recent years. This decision involved directing public resources to basic education instead. This strategy is now questioned, but it was a good decision when looked at more carefully. The education system lacked basic resources and the coverage rates, especially at the high school level, were incipient. This prompted a huge increase in the private sector: the absence of state funding for higher education and the decision to privilege the rest of the education system. Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that many of the traditional universities were at that time, and continue to be, quite selective. That is a decision taken by the universities, but also has to do with the design of the financing system.

The second factor that is behind the increasing demand for resources in higher education is research and development. The OECD countries currently invest 2.4% of GDP on research and development; Chile invests 0.39%, the same figure as the year 2000 when President Ricardo Lagos promised to double research and development funding by 2010. 40 years ago, OECD member countries invested 1.6%. Clearly, our country is behind in this regard. Of course, not all research and development funding is public. The reality is heterogeneous, but an average 40% in the OECD countries comes from public funding.

In the figures for number of researchers per one thousand employed persons, controlled for per capita income, Chile is way below where it needs to be: 0.79% of researchers for every one thousand contracted and salaried employees. Senegal is at 0.93%. There is also a source of additional pressure on the education system. The educational reforms should be understood in this context.

Avoiding the Public-Private Poles

The higher education reform, presented by the government as a paradigm shift, was designed as a transition from a neoliberal model to one that we could call Nordic. It sought to replace a higher education system, characterized as being coordinated by the market, with one that is guided and financed by the state. With that, it is argued, the so-called mercantilization of higher education can be reversed in order to transform accessibility into a social right, and at the same time, to ensure more state planning and coordination, guaranteeing the governability of the system, its appropriate expansion, and the public interest. I find this to be an oversimplification, where the debate about the future of the system of higher education is reduced to a binary matter.

However, as comparable experiences show, along with professor Pusser’s presentation, the development of the higher education system is more complex than the public-private dichotomy would suggest. In this framework, the vision of the university that has been so central over the past 50 years paradoxically loses relevance. What becomes important, then, is to what degree the system approaches one or the other pole. But the real world is neither white nor black; it is an experience full of nuances where the poles are not that relevant in defining the future path for the higher education system, and more importantly, the future path for each of its functions.

The challenges that lie ahead for the Chilean higher education system are many, and it would be a mistake to reduce them to a discussion anchored in a binary mindset, which will not, by itself, ensure the positive development of our system. The international experiences betray the complexities involved in trying to satisfy the different goals of higher education. We have to elevate the complexity of the debate, take responsibility for all of the arguments and avoid falling into a discussion dominated by polar extremes, which will not get us anywhere.


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