Chile: Free University Education and the Path of Social Justice

Published by Brandonc1991 on

Chile has recently moved to make university education free to its students through a reform pushed by the reelected president Michelle Bachelet. In Chile tuition payments are 2 percent of the GDP, this push for free higher education now creates a vacancy of this 2 percent that the government is seeking to fill with corporate taxes. While Chilean students are ecstatic, the reform has met some opposition. One roadblock has been a constitutional provision guaranteeing Chileans the right to earn a living however they so choose.


It essentially hinders the government’s ability to nationalize. It parallels the American notion of the right to pursue happiness but holds a stricter application in the realm of business. It was created during an American backed coup for Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled Chile from 1974 to 1990. Throughout authoritarian rule and the return to democracy, Chile has faced large inequalities among its students. The original idea was to implement free market competition in the educational system. Most of the inequalities were felt by students from low income families as many schools demanded high monthly payments  and frequently selected wealthier students over poorer ones. Class segregation was the result. It is arguably the inevitable result of an institution that bases its progress on profit rather than inherent rights. The new education model being pushed in Chile will take education away from the neoliberal model born out of the authoritarian era, and make it a natural right of the people. Many countries have recognized education as being such a right, but this right is usually restricted to basic education. Few have recognized higher education as a natural right.


It is interesting to note similarities between the educational system being criticized in Chile and the one being proposed in parts of the United States where the voucher system has received support from the right. This is the system in which certificates of funding are given to families, instead of being directly allocated to schools. The families then use these certificates to attend either public or private schools. The voucher system has been praised by those who say the certificates place schools in a competitive environment. People have a right to choose where they send their children for school and which school they will give their money to. The logic is that the market will force the public and private schools to constantly better themselves if they want to be recipients of the certificates. This has helped the manufacturing, transportation and postal services, all of which were run by the government and opened to compete in the free market.


The general idea is that public schools are guaranteed students and rest on their laurels. Public schools then lose the incentive to do well and this results in a failing system with poorly performing students. Many parents have no choice but to send their children to public schools because they do not have the money to afford private school tuition. Vouchers give low income families a way to afford tuition. So now these families have a choice between public and private schools, and this gives public schools the incentive to make sure students do better as there is now more competition with private schools. While this system is designed to reflect the push of the market to make schools better themselves, there are some who say the actual effects have hurt the school system by taking money away from the public schools partially because public schools receive money based on the number of pupils they have. When students decide to leave and attend a private school, this results in less in attendance at the public schools and ultimately less money.


On its face, vouchers seem like an ideal solution when reserved for disadvantaged students. They can be used to cater to low income or special needs students and give them the opportunity to learn in a private school and have a better quality of education. It has even saved money in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. But when Chile implemented this program they, experienced a widened gap between its socioeconomic classes. In an interview with Open Society Foundations, Giorgio Jackson, former leader of the Chilean Student movement stated that Chile in the 1980’s was a “laboratory for neoliberal reforms” the same economic theories promoted by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. These reforms created a market oriented educational system through vouchers. This created a decentralized system of education management. The government under Pinochet washed its hands of curriculum reforms or improving the quality of teaching. The theory was that these things would develop on their own as a result of competition, but they did not. By becoming market based and seeing education and students as money making tools, private schools have looked to taking the students that are the cheapest and easiest to educate. This is called “cream skimming”. By selecting the students that are the easiest to educate, they are making efforts to select the best and the brightest while leaving the most disadvantaged students. This has been found to be the case for for-profit private schools. More nonprofit private schools have been found to make it their mission to cater to low-income and minority students. Gregory Elacqua of the Centro de Politicas Comparadas de Educacion found this in his work. The issue of funding for profit schools caused mass protests in Chile by students who believed for-profit schools cannot be trusted to place the interests of children ahead of profitability.


The growth of vouchers in Chile between 1981 and 2010,  going beyond the Pinochet era and into recent leadership


Many have criticized Chile’s educational system for becoming segregated on a socioeconomic level. Among the problems was that these vouchers were offered to all students, not only the disadvantaged. So students from wealthy families who had the ability to pay tuition out of pocket could receive vouchers, the same vouchers designed to help the disadvantaged. Private schools also screened students, accepting only who they wanted, and teacher unions were eliminated. Chile has shown the world the dangers of a purely deregulated educational system supported by vouchers.


Years have passed since Pinochet’s regime and many Chileans are still upset with the education system. Michelle Bachelet’s term has worked to provide an answer to the protests. In early 2015 she signed a law banning profits, tuition fees, and selective admissions practices in privately-owned primary and secondary schools that receive state subsidies. Profit making is also banned in the top ranked universities in Chile which were said to be reserved for the wealthy as they create admission exams that disadvantage poorer students. Discriminatory measures have been used by the top ranking universities to sift through their applicants. Among the criteria used are past performance, behavior, family income and other family characteristics. Students from low income households also come from lower quality high schools and are subsequently sent to “store front” institutes where many drop out from high debt.


Student protests in 2006 with a sign reading “education is not for sale”


When speaking on the global economy, Pope Francis gave an impassioned statement.

“The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”


As many countries recognize that basic education should be a right to all people, perhaps it is time to expand that notion to include higher education. The world is evolving, services are becoming increasingly more intricate and skilled labor is in high demand. Higher education encompasses every industry from agriculture to finance and many believe education is something too personal to be controlled by the free market and profit making ventures. It is interesting to note that Chile’s economic and educational system was molded after the conservative beliefs of an American economist, and now they are making a strong left turn away from neoliberal reforms. A country that was once the laboratory for policy is now setting precedent as they carve their own path towards a society with a hightened element of social justice.

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