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Chile admits lessons still to be learned

Article - September 7, 2011
In order to increase competitiveness and continue its socio-economic progress, Chile must create more equitable access to quality education
In an interview with McKinsey last July, President Piñera said, “For a long time, I thought there were three basic pillars for the government: to have a stable, legitimate, democratic system; to have a free, open market economy, unencumbered by fiscal imbalances; and to have a state that works. But I don’t think that’s enough for what’s coming now. In the society of knowledge and information, we need at least four new pillars: to give a quality education to everyone, to invest in technology, to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, and to have a very flexible society and economy.”

Consequently, the President went on to say that Chile has embarked on a major education reform in an attempt to “fix a system that hasn’t worked well because it was caught up by all kinds of interest groups.”

The reform is timely, though much debated. Since May, thousands of Chilean students have taken to the streets in protest of a system they believe is rooted in inequality (and skewed against the working class and poor), asking for far-reaching reforms. Among their demands is an end to Chile’s system of private profit-making universities, in place since the time of Pinochet, and the implementation of free universal higher education, as well as improved secondary education.

Chile offers 25 traditional universities (both public and semi-private), and a growing number of private universities. Rector of the private Andres Bello University, Dr. Pedro Uribe, feels that problems underlying the educational system stem from unequal secondary education, which leads to disparate results on the country’s university access exam, the PSU.

He comments, “The exam is set up to measure knowledge, and not ability or aptitude for university level study. As knowledge is something that one begins to acquire at the dining table of an educated family, in a well-run high school (and the better ones nowadays are those that boast well-paid teachers), and even in extra-support classes, which only some can afford, then these students score much higher on the PSU. This is why it is difficult to speak about higher education without first speaking of significantly improving secondary education and finding ways of breaching the gap that exists given the huge difference between private and semi-private high schools and public ones.”

Still, Dr. Uribe says that private university figures contradict the student protesters’ claims that private universities lead to further inequality. Since 1980, the number of university students has multiplied tenfold. “Ironically, the rise of private higher education has permitted a previously unthinkable number of new students access to university education. Andres Bello University aims to represent Chile’s socio-economic pyramid in our classes, and we have a high number of students who come from lower-income backgrounds. Of our 40,000 students, roughly 65% come from public or semi-private high schools. This is a great source of pride for us, and I am convinced that this is going to create a completely different country in 10 years or less,” he says.
Patricia Matte Larrain, president of the private, non-profit SIP network of primary and secondary schools, which has been providing top class education to children without economic means for over 150 years, says that although Chile is well covered as far as education infrastructure goes, it must improve quality. She agrees that children from wealthier backgrounds have much better schooling options than those from poorer families, and that “this is very serious, because what we are really talking about is the fact that although there are schools everywhere, they are not of sufficient quality to ensure equal opportunity for the different socio-economic sectors of Chilean society.”

“We have to make a massive change in our education system. I believe that this is Chile’s most pressing issue,” says Mrs. Matte. “Today, we have many companies that are complaining because they cannot find qualified professionals. The government is trying to reform the system; it may not be the largest or the only reform needed, but it is a start.

“Chile has progressed a lot; it is something to be proud of, and this progress took place because a lot of people worked towards it. Now, we will work towards breaking the stagnant quality of our educational system in order to take the next great leap forward.”

Ignacio Sanchez, rector of the Catholic University of Chile, one of the country’s most prestigious universities and its second oldest after the University of Chile, says that Chile’s higher education system is facing both difficult challenges and great opportunities. There are now a million students attending university in Chile, which has a total population of just 17 million, meaning that 45% of adults between the ages of 19 and 25 are in college. This, says the rector, is a great achievement and bodes well for the economic future of the country over the next decades. The challenge, he says, is that “among the upper classes, this average is 95%, while among the more vulnerable segments of the population, the average is 15%.”

“Consequently, our country has a level of inequality that must be addressed. The truth is that there are people living off very little and other people who live very well, and this is a challenge for Chile,” says Mr. Sanchez. He points out that Chile is one of just two countries in the world in which the costs of university education are carried more by families than by the government. And while the Catholic University has been producing a good majority of the country’s top graduates for decades, the rector admits that only those who score well on the PSU get in.

In August, Chile’s new education minister, Felipe Bulnes, gave a televised address directed at the student protesters, assuring them that the government was listening to their demands. While President Piñera had stopped short of making university education free for all, the government had made a number of concessions, including dropping interest rates on student loans from 5.6% to 2%, increasing grants and loans to cover 60% of the most vulnerable students (up from 40%), and creating a US$4 billion education fund. The government also offered a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a quality education. Innovation, it would seem, has truly found its way into Chile’s educational system.

As the President said in the McKinsey interview, equality of opportunity is a national goal, and now is the time for Chile to deal with the situation.