Public Protest, Private Growth: A Discussion of Higher Education in Chile with Jose Joaquin Brunner
Published on: Nov 07, 2006

Jose Joaquin Brunner is the director of the education program at the Fundación Chile, academic director of the School of Government at Adolfo Ibáñez University and a professor in the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), in Santiago, Chile. A sociologist by training, Brunner has been both an academic and a political leader. He held various ministerial positions in Chile's Cabinet, including serving as Secretary-General of the Government. More information is available on his site:

Nicholas Rice: In the early '80s, the Chilean government reversed a trend in Latin America by encouraging the development of private higher education. By comparison with other systems in the region, how was Chile's early willingness to embrace this sector affected the quality of its teaching and its research?

Jose Joaquin Brunner: The premise of this question is only partly true. Chile has had, at least since the mid-1850s, an important private component as part of its education landscape at all levels. The military coup of 1973 resulted in almost every public institution and rule being examined in the light of, first, regime loyalty and, second, a commitment to markets with an increasingly aggressive belief in private education. Recall that this regime lasted 17 years (1973-90), quite enough time for the authorities to attempt different approaches to higher education without ever assuaging their hostility and suspicion towards university education and public universities in particular.

As background it helps to recall that at the time of the coup (1973) there were six private (including three Catholic) universities and two state universities, all publicly funded. From then on, higher education policy went through three separate but identifiable phases. The first (1973-80) led to the intervention and closure of universities or departments, with staff being dismissed and certain areas of learning – psychology and the social sciences – being reduced or cancelled as university subjects. The second began with the approval of the new higher education laws (1981) and involved a re-organization of higher education – reducing the size of public universities, licensing new universities etc. – in an attempt to create a university market based on student preferences and to reward universities that were able to attract the best students. In addition to reducing the power of the official sector, the regime promoted private universities, although it was unwilling to pay for them, and this continued into the third phase (1988-90) when it was clear that the next government was going to be the Democratic Coalition. This phase resulted in a law handed down by the military regime on the last day of their power, which codified private rights in education and gave universities and educational institutions quite extraordinary independence from the government, including in terms of accountability. All democratically elected governments have had to live with this law, which remains – despite attempts to muster two thirds of Congress to change it – the law of the land.  

The changes in the 1980s – ‘reversing a trend’ – were far more numerous than those in education alone, although the educational reforms were an important component of the military government’s attempt to discipline society. The difference in Chile lies less in the fact that it has private universities – after all, they are quite common in Brazil, Colombia and even Mexico – than in the increasing importance of those universities to the overall system and their independence from public policy. Private higher education institutions now account for 50 percent of student enrollment and are principally, although not exclusively, teaching institutions.

Although universities can be divided into the roughly 25 older, traditional institutions – members of the Rector’s Council directly associated with the eight universities that existed in 1973 – and 40 (new) private universities, there is an immense range of teaching quality and research within and between the two sectors. While it is true that the Catholic University and the University of Chile are by far and away the most productive in terms of research output, a number of private universities have begun to win national competitions and awards. At the same time, there is a growing consensus between private and public universities about quality that involves commitment to educational standards, departmental peer reviews and international evaluations as part of common university goals and practice. In some areas university departments are judged as much by public quality assurance measures as by the public/private division.

In summary, while the military government altered the balance between public and private initiatives – clearly favoring the second – this has now been superseded by the dramatic demand for higher education from the growing number of students completing secondary education. Without private universities, this demand could not be fulfilled.

NR: Do you believe that students in Chile have a healthy amount of political power by comparison with other Latin American countries like Venezuela and Brazil?

JJB: Historically, Chilean students have played important social and political roles. They were very active in opposing the military regime and maintaining a critical climate under very difficult, not to say dangerous, conditions. While there appear to be periods when they are more active than others, it would be a mistake to underestimate their historic role as social critic and scold of governments. Earlier this year, secondary school students began a campaign to improve the quality of public secondary education, taking over different schools, holding seminars and meetings and demonstrating in the streets. The President recognized the validity of their arguments, and took pains to ensure that they had a number of platforms to discuss their grievances. In the back of her mind, I am sure, was an appreciation of their residual influence on public opinion.  

NR:Are students from disadvantaged economic and educational backgrounds paying large sums for a private education, while wealthier students attend more prestigious public universities for free?

JJB: All students are charged fees and fees tend to reflect the real cost of higher education. So, for example, an education in medicine is more expensive than in other professions, although this increasingly depends on another factor, a university’s prestige. However, not all students pay fees because in all accredited state and private universities there are schemes to attract the best school leavers (waiving/reducing fees and offering scholarships) and the more disadvantaged (government grants and student loans) to higher education institutions. The government’s new loan scheme (2005) assumes that around 40 percent of students will require a combination of loans and grants and has classified universities into three schemes (research, general, teaching) for the purpose of reference fees.

NR: To what extent have Chilean schemes such as the National System for Student Finance and the Higher Education Project ensured that low-income families are able to afford a quality higher education?

JJB: The Democratic Coalition governments’ higher education policies have been concerned with two issues – access and cost – which have most recently been joined by a third – quality or value for money. Access has improved partly because the number of universities and university places has increased. To get into a public and increasingly private university, the student has to sit an examination, known as the PSU, which determines the university you can go to and the subject for which you can apply. Thus there is a pecking order – just like the competitive systems in the U.S. and elsewhere – where only those with the highest possible marks could apply to the Catholic University’s medical school or another faculty in the same university. The problem is that to get high marks at the PSU, you have to attend a good, competent secondary school. So private schools are “overrepresented” at the best universities, indicating that the roots of access equality are a product of secondary training and preparation, which are in turn the product of primary preparation. This has led to a large and inconclusive debate in Chile that is not and, please note, cannot be restricted to higher education only.

In summary, access has increased dramatically but equality of opportunity to attend the best universities continues to depend on secondary education. Costs have increased, but so have loans. Hence, again, the importance of the third factor – quality – and the need for more transparent public standards.

NR: Of the elite institutions, do you believe the government has invested a disproportionate quantity of resources into making the University of Chile a world-class university by its 150th anniversary in 2038?

JJB: There is little evidence that the government has disproportionately supported the University of Chile, not least because support to universities pertaining to the Rector’s Council is distributed according to agreed formulae. Moreover this amounts to little more than 0.5 per cent of GDP. That the University of Chile and the Catholic University receive the bulk of funds, given their history and the fact that these two are Chile’s most important research universities, should not come as a surprise. However, these funds are not, as far as I know, based on a slogan or a vague desire to create a “world-class university.” Chile’s policy toward knowledge (in contrast to institutional) generation is to support stronger links between private companies and university research facilities and, in some cases, regional governments.

NR: Do you think the effort of institutions such as the University of Chile to train staff abroad creates a brain drain to other countries, or do you believe it enhances Chile’s educational portfolio?

JJB: The evidence is quite clear. Chile urgently needs highly educated graduates at all levels, and the government, particularly over the last five years, has increased funds and support for training both in Chile and, most importantly, in North America, Europe and Asia. Moreover, the majority of graduating students return to work and teach in Chile. However, such are the numbers that there could be a brain drain in the sciences unless the government spends on advanced facilities. Plans have already been announced for biotechnology, computational mathematics and other facilities in Chile, but of course such demands will increase and not diminish. 

NR: How do you think Chile should best encourage the production of doctorates and other research to compete with institutions abroad?

JJB: The government, reflecting the university community, has proceeded cautiously over the last five years as it has been concerned, again reflecting professional groups, to ensure that doctorates reach international standards. In the last five years, in part due to returning graduates, the government has committed more and more resources to national graduate programs. Here there has been a carrot and stick that affects more than graduate schools, in that doctoral programs as well as institutions providing professional programs must be accredited if students are to receive public support. The total number of graduates has increased substantially but not yet to levels found in Brazil and Mexico.

NR: Does quality assessment by foreign universities and economic institutions overlook problems that are specific to Chile? How has the Law of University Accreditation assisted in addressing these problems?

JJB: National accreditation is controlled, managed and granted by a national agency which is solely responsible for institutional and program accreditation in Chile. Thus, unless it is incompetent, it will look at specific Chilean problems in the light of international experience, which is accessed through the inclusion of international – mainly Latin American, European and North American – peer reviewers. A number of departments have also sought accreditation from prestigious international bodies – in architecture, for example – but these do not count as national accreditation, even though, of course, they help staff and students evaluate the institution and their education. As Chile is now reaching a second and third round of accreditation evaluations, it is to be expected that they help define educational problems more accurately. 

NR: As the author of a recent book entitled “Education and the Internet: The Next Revolution?” do you believe that improvements in telecommunications and educational ICT networks such as Enlaces are leveling the educational playing field in Chile, or are they merely disadvantaging poorer institutions that are less technologically advanced?

JJB: The digital gap would be much deeper if schools – particularly municipal schools – did not teach with computers and offer facilities to students for their use. The government and business programs that provide poorly resourced schools with computers have been a great success in terms of initial computer literacy. However, there are various changes, inherent in the technology itself, which will make the future even more interesting than the past: firstly, the changing dynamics of information delivery – from computer to i-Pod to mobile – that in turn are modifying content; secondly, the growing need for better content and the need for government to spend more on delivery modes, improving information presentations, and generally converting computer-based information into educational opportunities; and, thirdly, the rapid decline in computer technology costs and the growing integration of different systems, particularly mobile and business analysis.

NR: How will the Chilean economy grow if tertiary education cannot meet a mass need for marketable skills such as IT?

JJB: People have often worried about the capacity of Chilean higher education institutions to meet advanced labor market demands. But evidence over the last 20 years has shown that these concerns are little more than alarmist. Chilean education seems to have met most job- or company-specific employment needs through a combination of well prepared degree holders (e.g. engineering, economics), on-the-job training, advanced long-term management degrees, short-term specialized diplomas etc. There do not seem to have been serious skill shortages, or at least not enough to hold up innovative industries such as salmon farming or berry exports, although nursing, geology and some specialized medical disciplines demonstrate shortages. Rather, the most pressing questions about the labor market are: (i) the quality of the training received at universities and their relevance to current labor demands; (ii) flooding a number of professions such as journalism and its impact on employment; (iii) filling specific gaps such as nursing, geology etc.

With the economy growing at about 5 percent per annum and unemployment hovering around 8 percent, it is essential to invest in skilled services that will attract graduates and provide them with a platform for renewed expansion.