Chilean Higher Education’s #1 Obstacle

The 2012 PFP Chile’s trip illuminated a large number of things about Chilean Higher Education, however no one stuck out to me (or my peers, I believe) more stridently than the huge problem that is facing Chilean Higher Education–the issue of national, regional, public and private funding.

Most of us agreed that the real “epiphany” moment of our trip–a moment in which many of the things we had learned but that had not seemed to line up fully with one and other–occurred during a meeting with Administrators from the University of Austral in Valdivia.  During this meeting the dean of graduate studies gave a presentation that very clearly laid out the X’s and O’s of funding, budgets and salaries in Chilean Higher Education.

The numbers were shocking.

Perhaps most shocking was the percentage of federal funding given to Chilean higher education: 0.3% of the national GDP.  By comparison, Virginia Tech Vice President of International Affairs and Outreach, John Dooley, said that the current United States funding accounts for approximately 2.6% of the US GDP–or nearly 10 times a much federal funding as in Chile!!!

The disappointingly low level of federal funding is also negatively compounded by the method of allocation of these funds.  Our discussions at all of the universities showed that this money is not allocated in a straight forward fashion such as, for example, by number of students at a given university or simply divided my the number of universities based upon some other transparent criteria.  Instead, money is allocated based upon the test scores of the students on the national exam.  The result of this formula is, quite simply, that the two or three best schools in the nation who get all the best students ALSO get the most funding.  I comment to my PFP peers that this would essentially be like giving Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other Ivy League level schools additional funding because of the fact that the best students chose to go to these schools (this, of course, in addition to the massive endowments these schools have by nature of their having the reputation of being the best schools in the world).

In writing this I have come to realize that perhaps I should not be so surprised by this because the United States has also implemented a plan of this sort at the K-12 level.

We call it “No Child Left Behind.”

The sad irony of this is that educational scholar across the board have noted that systems that provide funding to the best schools and cuts off funding to the struggling schools is, well, ludicrous.  The result of these types of educational policies is to create a very small percentage schools that have such high levels of funding as to make it pragmatically impossible that the lower 98% of the schools in the country will every realistically be able to compete.

We saw the divide created and the drastic nature of the drop off of economic resources that this created even in the universities that we visited that were all ranked, across the board, as the top 5 universities in Chile.  The undisputed number one school is Universidad de Chile, the school that ranks 2 or 3 is University Catholica Pontifica de Chile and the school that is 4th or 5th is University de Austral.

One would expect that all of these schools would all be working with a similar economic portfolios by nature of being so highly ranked amongst the nearly 200 universities in the country, but this is not the case.  The economic situation of U. de Chile and Catholic as was not really a situation at all.  The campuses featured all the state of the art equipment that you would expect of a top tier US university, had campuses that were arranged and composed of elements and buildings of a similar fashion, and offered their faculty members salaries that were competitive on the global market for top level scholars.  These universities had not economic “situations” because it was clear that pretty much across the board, these institutions did not have any significant funding obstacles to being internationally competitive.  The University of Austral, on the other hand, while equipped with a number of state of the art facilities, and a very nice and green campus, was clearly operating at a significantly different level than the two other universities.  Most striking, however, was the amount of faculty funding available.  The University of Austral offered scholars, in comparison with U. de Chile and U. Catholica, salaries that were half to a third as much as these other universities.  These salary offers  were not just not comparative on the global market, but were quite frankly shocking.

The magnitude of this economic disparity must be viewed in light of the fact that I am talking about the differences between three schools that are ALL top five schools in the nation.  This observation casts a startling perspective on what must be an far bleaker economic position for the nearly 200 other universities that are not even in the top ten schools, many of which are far below this level.

In conclusion, I would add only the remark that this issue of national funding is clearly the major obstacle for Chile creating and maintaining a system of higher education that has any realistic chance of being globally competitive on two different levels.  First, in terms of international reputation in the sense of appealing to foreign scholars, of Chilean graduates being viewed favorably in the international market and of international funding looking seriously at  Chile as an intellectual market with the necessary (national) support to be a good place for investment.  Second, and far more important, is the situation this creates for the upcoming generations of Chileans themselves.  Without a system of higher education that has the resources and the commitment to educate its citizens in a manner that is roughly equivalent to the standards of other developed nations, the people of Chile themselves will be the losers on so many levels.

My own educational background in social movements, history and political science suggests on interesting commentary of hope amidst this pandemic problem.  The issue of the student strikes of 2011 is clearly still major issue for people in higher education in Chile due to the recent nature of the strikes and the fact that its aftershocks are still shaking.  On the one hand, amongst those Chilean citizens with the privilege of having high level of education, there seems to be something of a consensus that the the demands of the students for complete payment of higher education for all citizens were “untenable.”  While this is perhaps true to some degree, I would suggest that for those of us with this privilege (myself most definitely included in this “us”), it must be to another degree impossible to truly understand the plight of those who are by nature of birth outside of the system enraged about this arrangement.  On the other hand, in light of all that we learned in the 2012 PFP Chile trip in combination with our perspective as “outsiders” to Chilean educational politics (and Chilean politics, generally), might I suggest the following:

The student strikes of 2011 in Chile were naturally created by the reality of system of higher education in Chile.

As such, I believe history will show that this was a crucially important moment for Chile that essentially has one of two paths forward.  The first path is to do nothing and to maintain the status quo in Chilean higher education which creates a system of exclusion for all but the most privileged members of Chilean society.  While this path is the common choice due to the power and influence of this class of people, to chose this direction is to risk the increase of social disturbance and the potential for far, far, worse that extends far beyond the field of higher education.  As Cesar Chavez astutely noted, “A people awakened will never go back to sleep.”

The second path is for Chilean society to confront both the injustice of this situation and the ways in which it limits Chile from evolving positively in manifold ways and to make significant and profound changes in the way they value, fund and think about the role of higher communication in their society.

In solidarity with the vibrant and wonderful Chilean people, I sincerely hope and pray that they chose to collectively walk the second path.

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The Two Santiagos

The 2012 PFP Chile group encountered two different Santiago’s, and we did so in an order that was for me both uncomfortably stunning and appealingly comfortable.

We arrived in Santiago and spent two days in the very modern and cosmopolitan part of town.  Our drive from the airport did not seriously challenge this view of Santiago as the roads we took largely avoided the suburbs for most of the way and then went underground for a period only to have us emerge in the heart of the city amidst modern skyscrapers, impressive urban greenery and a clear commitment to artwork and design in the public spaces.  We stayed at the Park Plaza Santiago which was a good as it sounds and was centrally located in a way that allowed for us to either walk streets lined with multi-story shopping malls and patio restaurants and bars or to take the metro underground only to emerge again (where we traveled) amongst more streets of a similar description.

The feeling of this Santiago was safe, familiar and could well have been something one would experience in Manhattan or Hollywood Boulevard.

The second Santiago we discovered only on our last day trip and perhaps it is not correct to say we discovered it, because largely it was experienced through the window of the van that transported us around town that day.  This Santiago was far different.  This Santiago had people selling all sorts of snacks, drinks and gadgets at intersections when the lights were red and cars were transformed into captive audiences.  This Santiago had window-order restaurants that advertised food for two to three times less than anything we had encountered in our time in Chile.  The people in the Santiago were dressed not simply to go for an afternoon stroll but for the reality of going to work, working, or coming home from a period of time spent working.  This Santiago had no modern buildings, and for that matter, rarely had a building taller than 5 stories or so with the average height being one story.  These buildings were modular–clearly built for function and economic considerations–and were separated from the street by nothing more than sidewalks either long forgotten and populated with fractures and cracks at best or well tampered dirt and refuse that was clearly not waiting for the street sweepers so prevalent in the other Santiago.  An old PC mouse sitting forgotten on one of these dirt walkways suggested that the refuse of this Santiago was not just the careless candy wrapper of pedestrian, but rather, that this Santiago was in fact a city built, situated, and accustomed to living in such a fashion.

This was the Santiago of refuse–a refuse of the “other” Santiago.  This Santiago was the reality of the what it takes to create a Santiago that appeals to the discerning cultural pallet.  This is the Santiago, I would imagine, where 6.7 million of the 7 million people who are listed as “the population of Santiago” on Chile Fact Sheets actually live.

This Santiago also caused many of the students in the 2012 PFP Chile cohort to comment amongst ourselves our previous feeling that we “knew” Santiago was in fact an incorrect statement as it became clear in all of our driving on the final day that the Santiago we had been exposed to on the first day was, while very comfortable and filled with great cultural opportunities, only a very small part of the larger Santiago which was composed of far less aesthetic appeal and far more in-the-flesh-and-on-the-ground reality of the real world of most of the inhabitants of Santiago, and no doubt, of Chile as a whole.

Seeing this second Santiago was important and gave some much needed perspective many of the financial statistics that we had encountered about national funding for Chilean Higher Education.  This is a line of though I will engage in another posting soon.

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The Paradox of Processing Culture & Blogging

In a small aside, I would like to quickly comment on the seeming paradox of working towards blogging on an international excursion versus the important work of processing what one encounters in new lands.

In the lead up to our trip to Chile I was able to blog prolifically because I was interpreting and critiquing news about Chile that I discovered on the internet.  This kind of blogging is much like writing and academic paper or posting to ones Facebook profile, in the sense that one takes information which is delivered objectively (an article, a piece of text, etc) and comments on the information contained therein.

On the other hand, blogging about ones experience of another culture is possible in one of two ways.  The first is simply to detail in a more or less straight forward fashion what it is that has happened on a given day or group of days.  There is a great value in this because it is kind of the nuts and bolts of an experience presented so that others can know what occurred.

There is, however, a whole other level of blogging about ones time in another culture that it seems to me is not really possible in the immediate aftermath of an experience, and that is to process the manifold and routinely subtle experiences that one finds in a place one is not familiar with.  For the rare individual perhaps this is possible very near to the event, but for most people I believe this requires a bit of space for settling, contemplating and then intellectually organizing this multi-level process into a posting that in some way represents all of this.

I share this post with current and future PFP members in the hope that it both sheds light on the variety of posts in the 2012 PFP Chile blog, and also as a way of supporting those individuals who like myself find/found it very difficult to blog immediately after an international experience.

Put differently, I want to suggest that value should not be placed on the timing of the post, but rather on its content of its material.

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Massive Chilean Fire–Massive International Affairs Calamity

For the past three days fires have been raging across Southern Chile (some sources claim as many as 20 independent fires) with the largest an most notable being in the internationally famous Torres de Paine National Park.  Winds, high temperatures and La Nina weather patters have all combined to make containment of the fire a very difficult issue.  Interestingly, the the Chilean President has cited “global warming” as one of the causes for the initiation of some of the fires.  For an early report on fire see:

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/wildfires-devastate-chilean-wilderness-6283800.html

While the devastation of both Chilean natural resources and the homes of nearly 200 people thus far (primarily in the Bio Bio region), perhaps more interesting is how this has affected international relations between Chile and . . . Israel?????

Yes, a Israeli national has been charged with starting one of the fires in the national park and in a very interesting turn of events, numerous members of the Chilean Parliament have called on Israel to pay restitution costs if the individual is in fact found guilty of the crime.

Israel has stopped short of making any promises, but whereas many countries might just tell another sovereign nation to–pardon the expression–go pound sand, Israel has in fact responded in a highly bizzare fashion.  Citing a recent fire in Israeli(/Palestinian) territory, Israel authorities have promised support and have repeatedly cited how these fires (???) illustrate a common bond and will strengthen ties between the two nations.

For some articles on this bizzare international situation see:

http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/01/03/3090992/chile-calls-on-israel-to-compensate-for-park-fire

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4170664,00.html

I will limit myself on commenting here because, well, the potential hypothesis available are just too fertile to water at this time.  I will say, however, that the Israel response, at the very least, points not to Chile but to the very tenuous nature of their current international reputation and the fact that a fire 15,000 miles away that may or may not have been started by a single one of their citizens has resulted in number of high-level government responses.

Simply amazing, really.

For some amazing photos, see these links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-16406681

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-16384691

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Chilean Student Leader Publically Predicts the Fall of the current President of Chile

The student movement in Chile made international headlines again today when student activist Camila Vallejo publicly announced that the student movement is confident that the current conservative and rightward leaning President Sebastian Pinera will not be re-elected.

http://www.democracynow.org/2011/10/28/headlines#6

One could interpret this as just a case of outwardly boastful predictions, however the very fact that international media has picked up this story suggests–at the very least–the the level of power with which the Chilean Student movement has grown at this point is substantial.   Only time will tell but it does not seem overtly bold to tentatively suggest that this might be the strongest student movement to emerge on the face of the planet thus fra in the 21st century.

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