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Chileans will vote for free education

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A vote on whether Chile will adopt a radical new constitution enshrining bold commitments to reform higher education is said to be on a knife’s edge as a crucial vote approaches.

Public universities will become free as part of sweeping changes to a system that currently boasts some of the highest tuition rates in South America.

The draft document was completed by a constitutional assembly outside the formal political structures, but its success is seen as inextricably linked to the fate of the new president, Gabriel Borich, one of the leaders of the 2011 student movement, who called for a market-based education system established by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1980. years old, subject to dismantling.

Critics said it was unclear how the changes would work in practice or how the cost of the commitment could be covered, particularly as the government also promised to cancel student debt and increase research funding from the current 0.4 percent of gross domestic income. product to 1 percent.

Andres Bernasconi, a professor of education at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said that even if the public supported the document in a September 4 plebiscite, which was far from certain, its sections on higher education were likely to remain “wishful thinking” for at least the next three to four years. , before further legislation can be enacted to give effect to the pledges.

A key clause mandating free higher education at public universities regardless of a student’s family income is much more vague about the future of the country’s large private university sector, whose funding and fee structures will be decided by law.

Under gratuity program created by Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s last left-wing leader, 60 percent of the poorest in society pay for their education by the government, regardless of whether they attend public or private institutions, and it is unclear what elements of this system will be preserved.

Other proposed changes include a commitment to at least one public university in every region of the country and a new state funding system that would distribute money to institutions through block grants rather than based on student enrollment.

María Verónica Santeliches, associate professor of education at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said that if passed, the constitution would enshrine the idea of ​​education as a right and give public institutions a stronger role than they have had for the past 30 years, when the expansion of Chile’s higher education sector was left to the main private institutions.

But the standard of public universities varied widely, from the highly prestigious and selective Universidad de Chile and the Universidad de Santiago, Chile, to much lower quality institutions that suffered from years of underfunding, according to Carolina Guzmán Valenzuela, a professor of higher education at the University of Tarapaco. .

She said that when faced with the choice, many prospective students who could not get into the best public institutions may decide that it is better to go to a private university with a good reputation, even if they have to pay.

Bernasconi said Boric had talked about strengthening the public system, which currently has only 16 percent of the student body, but warned that it would be difficult politically in the long term “because the demand from students and families in the private sector will too strong. to ignore”.

“In the short term, you would need students to choose public over private in sufficient numbers to change the share of students in any system for it to make sense,” he added.

Bernasconi said private universities — especially older institutions established before the Pinochet era — opposed the proposals.

“They say we are basically public universities, regardless of our legal nature and the private nature of our charter; we have been working as government agencies for many years. The constitutional convention is ignoring the contribution we have made for public good,” he said.

Kenneth Roberts, a professor of public administration and an expert on Latin American politics at Cornell University, said the constitutional changes would face significant opposition from more conservative elements of Chilean society, but the polls were likely to narrow as the vote approached.

He said Chile, as the birthplace of neoliberalism and a showcase for privatized education, is seen as a key battleground as the region changes again politically following the elections of leftist leaders in Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

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