Why Chile’s Controversial Education Reforms Are Likely to Last

Chilean students during a protest demanding educational reforms, Santiago, Chile, April 11, 2017, (NurPhoto photo by Mauricio Gomez).

April 14th 2017, for World Politics Review by

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series about education policy in various countries around the world.

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, has made education reform a central component of her strategy to combat inequality. But her approach has been a frequent source of controversy, and with a presidential election later this year, it is likely to become a central issue in the campaign. In an email interview, Kirsten Sehnbruch, director of the Institute of Public Policy at the Universidad Diego Portales, research associate of the Center for Social Conflict and Cohesion and affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge, describes what Bachelet’s reforms have accomplished already and how they might figure in political debates leading up to the next presidential vote.

WPR: What is the state of Chile’s education system, and what issues have been driving the debate over reforming it in recent years?

Kirsten Sehnbruch: The Chilean education system was the world’s only full-fledged voucher system in which the state paid a fixed amount per child, and parents were able to pay additional fees to send their children to private subsidized schools, which were highly selective. Over time, it was found that Chile’s levels of educational attainment remained well below the OECD average, while voucher schools contributed nothing to improving educational attainment levels. In addition, the voucher system led to a rigid segmentation of school children according to their social origin and stratification based on income levels.

This is perpetuated by a system of higher education that, according to the OECD, is one of the most expensive in the world. In addition, few universities provide an education that is of high quality or at an internationally comparable standard. This means that the access of low-income families to vocational- and university-level education is restricted by high costs, but also often means that they take on high levels of debt to fund degrees, which do not then lead to returns in the labor market that are commensurate with the money spent on higher education.

This triple challenge of high costs, low educational quality and limited employment opportunities thus led to extensive high school student protests in 2006 and university student protests in 2011. These protests subsequently had a significant impact on policy debates, which therefore focused on improving access to education by making it free, and reducing high social segmentation.

WPR: What were the reforms introduced by President Bachelet designed to address, and how effective have they been?

Sehnbruch: In response to the protests of 2011, President Bachelet’s government initiated a series of reforms in 2015 that are intended to produce structural changes to the education system. The first key pillar of these reforms was the proposal to eliminate the voucher system, prevent co-payments and remove selection procedures that schools used to filter out all but the best students. This reform went hand in hand with the banning of profit-making by educational establishments, which now have to operate on a nonprofit basis. This means that segmentation in the Chilean primary and secondary education systems should decrease significantly as the voucher system has effectively been abolished.

Second, at the university level, the government has extended free university education to students in the bottom 60 percent of the household income scale, regardless of whether they choose to go to a university or a vocational training institute. However, universities are free to choose whether they become part of this new system or not, a choice which for some has been difficult to make as fees for lower-income students are capped at levels that do not cover the cost of their education.

Each measure of this reform process has been controversial, and has generated significant levels of public debate. While students have protested that the reforms do not go far enough-especially in the case of higher education, where they would like to see free education for all-universities have excluded themselves or threatened to withdraw from the new system in an effort to remain fully privately funded institutions. Even parents have protested that they would rather pay for the education of their children in schools that are socially selective.

WPR: How prominent an issue is education reform in Chilean politics currently, and how might it figure in December’s presidential vote?

Sehnbruch: President Bachelet’s government has been under constant fire due to this reform process. There has been a lot of pressure to undertake the educational reforms in a very short timeframe, as governments in Chile are limited to four-year terms and presidents cannot be immediately re-elected. With elections planned for later this year, Bachelet will leave office in March 2018. However, the desire to undertake high-speed reforms has affected the effectiveness and quality of their implementation, leading to widespread criticism, even from within the government’s own coalition.

The opposition, on the other hand, is taking advantage of low government and presidential approval ratings to question the educational reforms, and turn the controversy that surrounds them into a campaign issue. The conflict between different views of the reforms could further be exacerbated as the student movement gears up for its season of protests, demonstrations and strikes in the run-up to the elections.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, it is already clear that the reforms have had a significant structural impact on Chile’s education system, and will constitute an enduring legacy of the Bachelet administration, as it would be very difficult to reverse them. In fact, the main opposition candidate, former President Sebastian Pinera, has stated that he would not reverse them but would instead try to improve upon them, and probably strengthen elements of parental choice. The question is whether a center-right coalition government led by Pinera would be able to stand up to pressure from Chile’s re-energized social movements.