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.