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Chile continues debate over inequality in higher education

A national march against Chile's education system in 2015. (Credit: Esteban Ignacio/Flickr)

The results of Chile’s standardized university admissions exams have renewed an ongoing debate over the country’s higher education system, which has long been criticized for perpetuating poverty and inequality.

For decades, the Chilean government has promoted an educational financing system that encouraged private education while inadequately funding public education. In an effort to provide more equal access to quality education, President Michelle Bachelet proposed the Inclusive Education Act in 2015 to effectively eradicate for-profit education by 2018.

But Chilean students consider Bachelet’s measure insufficient. The Federation of University Students of Chile criticized the proposal for covering just 14 of percent of tuition costs. Many said the bill fails to address needed development of regional universities. Critics have taken to the streets in protest – which often turn violent – over the last several years.

The debate over higher education reform resurfaced after the recently released results of Chile’s standardized university admissions exams revealed the deep divide between private and public schools. Of the highest-scoring students who took the University Selection Test (PSU), which has been used in Chile since 2003, nearly 70 percent attended paid and private establishments.

“The PSU is a test of knowledge,” said Sen. Jaime Quintana of the Party for Democracy (Partido por la Democracia, PPD), “and in our society the one with the most knowledge is normally the one who can pay for it.”

Many government critics blame the public-private disparity on the government’s affinity toward market-oriented public policies. One of these critics is Jaime Retamal, a professor of education and academics at the University of Santiago de Chile, who told El Tipógrafo that the neoliberal policies promoted by the government since 1990 have worsened the country’s economy.

“What the state has done is perpetuate inequality,” he said in an interview with El Tipógrafo. “If we look at the data from 1990 onwards, we see that it has not fulfilled its constitutional mission of guaranteeing quality education for all children and young people, especially for the most vulnerable.”

Retamal added that the national PSU results were “extremely disturbing” because they show the “deterioration of public education in our country, brought about by the state’s neglect and abandonment of public education.”

The argument over the quality of higher education is somewhat ironic in Chile, which serves as a model for much of Latin America with regard to human rights and social policies.

According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Chile is the member country with the highest income inequality. The income of the richest 10 percent is 26 times higher than that of the poorest 10 percent. For those who cannot afford to pay expensive school fees and university tuition, the constitutional right of access to quality education is limited.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at