Presidential Frontrunner Proposes “Free” University in Chile

As presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet prepares for a second round of voting on December 15 in Chile, for what would be a second term in office, her campaign has released a proposal to provide universal access to higher education at no cost to students.

Her campaign’s five-member special unit’s proposal not only requires broadly increasing the country’s welfare state, it also calls for the elimination of for-profit universities, which currently play an important role in the country’s education system. The team is proposing new taxes on “professionals,” to cover the cost of providing free access to universities.

Children in Chile currently have access to government education through high school at no cost, aside from minimal administrative fees. That equates to government spending on education of approximately 4.1 percent of economic output, which tends to be on the low end for developed nations, but it may reflect the stronger private sector and less need for government spending. Hong Kong’s government spending on education, for example, equals 4.4 percent of economic output, and Singapore, a similarly prosperous nation, spends 3.3 percent. Chile’s neighbors, the governments of Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, spend 3.0, 7.6, and 5.8 percent, respectively.

Bachelet’s panel is composed of five academics and headed by Valentina Quiroga, the founder of Educación 2020, a Chilean non-governmental organization that seeks to improve primary and secondary education in the country. Quiroga stated that the purpose of the group’s proposal is to, “advance the possibility of a country where education is the source of equality.”

This particular policy proposal stems most recently from a series of student protests that came to a climax in 2011, under the administration of Chile’s current president, Sebastián Piñera. At the center of the protests was a demand for an improved education system, and “free” university access.


Vallejo (right) and Castro in 2012. Source: Cuba Debate.

One of the most visible leaders of the protests, Camila Vallejo, was president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (Fech) at the time. In 2012, she became a candidate for the Communist Party of Chile and later part of Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría coalition. She won her election to represent the 26th District of La Florida in Santiago on November 17, 2013.

Part of the government takeover of Chile’s university system would include the panel’s proposal for increased income taxes to cover the costs of the government expansion. While the panel has not clarified an estimate for the cost of their proposal, her political opponents, including the sitting president, estimate the plan would cost US$3.5 billion per year. Her administration is reportedly planning $9 billionin additional tax revenue through the elimination of tax exemptions and benefits to small and medium-sized enterprises, coupled with additional corporate and personal taxes.

Chile has approximately 60 public and private universities, and it is not clear how each will be compensated to cover the cost of providing universal access to higher education. Additionally, Bachelet’s team has not clarified what will happen to the 35 private universities in the country if for-profit education is eliminated per their proposal.

“[Michelle’s] directive was very clear and we all agree with it. She proposed a move toward ending for-profit education, but the mechanism for this has not been finalized,” said Quiroga.

Opponents dispute the tactics, rather than the purported goals — better access and higher quality — of these proposals for the Chilean system. According to Rafael Rincón–Urdaneta Zerpa, a researcher at the Fundación para el Progreso in Chile and a professor at Adolfo Ibáñez University, “the critical point is full government subsidization. Conservatives say that it would be counterproductive for public spending. Not so long ago, some voices within La Concertación disagreed with universal tuition coverage.” According to Rincón, conservatives instead propose targeted support for people who do not have financial resources, because universal coverage would favor higher-income families.

At present, Chileans appear to have few problems accessing university education, despite the high costs paid in relation to the rest of Latin America. “Seven out of ten [Chilean students] are the first generation in college,” argues Rincon, which means the inclusion of families with no professional education. High education is already possible for all classes with the existing system.

This article was originally published at The PanAm Post.

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