Human Rights and
International Democratic Solidarity


Monitoring of democratic governance


Chile: education and progress

By Florencia de la Cruz

A sign that the country is moving forward and that its new problems are different to those of the past

The 2011 edition of the “Democracy, Market and Transparency” (DMT) global ranking has yet again placed Chile as first among the Latin American countries and 15th overall at international level, rising three places in the last four years.
This ranking indicates that Chile is on the right path towards progress. If this is the case, how can we explain the largest social protest since the country’s return to democracy, carried out in 2011 by secondary school and college students unhappy and dissatisfied with the country’s educational model? Could it be that as progress continues, improvements in other areas become necessary?
The number of people in Chile with access to higher education has grown at an increasing rate over the last few years, with four times as many people attending university today as in the late 80s. At present, 70% of students are the first generation of their family to receive higher education.
However, by no means do these encouraging figures suggest that the education Chileans receive is accessible to all or of good quality. In fact, the results from national level examinations, where student knowledge and skills are tested, are alarming. Moreover, the gap between state and private schools reflects an inequality that worries the authorities.
For example, according to a study carried out by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Chile is the most unequal of the countries that participate in the organization. The richest ten percent of the population earns up to 27 times more than the poorest. This inequality is not only reflected by people’s income, but also in relation to education, access to cultural activities and quality of life. Regarding education, fees in Chile are the highest in the world by income per capita (41%) while none of its universities are ranked in the top 35 in the world.
Were these protests a criticism of the model or a demand for improvements? A solution has not yet been found to resolve the student conflict, which has been keeping the government and protestors in constant debate and negotiation. Secondary school and university students took to the streets to demand free, decent and good quality education, managing to get unprecedented support at international level.

The leaders of the protest were invited to countries such as Brazil and France to put forward their arguments and demands, as well as to gather support from other students around the world.

The Chilean Students Confederation’s main demands are based on three principle areas: financial improvements, fairness and quality and, lastly, democratization.
The students are calling for the government to provide greater financial support to state universities, the regulation of the private sector to put an end to their profits, the restructuring of the scholarship system and free education for students from the poorest three quintiles .
According to a study carried out by the newspaper La Tercera, 26% of students questioned considered education in Chile to be “very bad” and 50% believe there are great inequalities between the education received in private schools and in state schools.

The figures for Chilean state investment in education are another point of concern: it only reaches 15% whereas families finance the remaining 85%. This is completely the opposite situation to that of other countries in the OECD, where the state contribution reaches on average 85%. Together with the United States, England and Japan, Chile is among the four countries that receive the least state funding (see Table 1).
According to Ignacio Sánchez, deputy headmaster of the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile, “improving the quality of higher education institutions ought to be the main priority in the negotiations and the central focus of the reform process. There are other important objectives but, among other things, it makes little sense to be working towards a greater and more equal access to education if the education being offered does not provide students with an adequate preparation or the necessary tools for the job market. This is why quality should be the main point guiding discussion.

Sánchez believes that in order to ensure quality, “all establishments must be subjected to rigorous checks in all areas. This constitutes a necessary aspect in order to guarantee compliance to rules in an area that has hardly been regulated in previous decades. This is reflected in non-compliance with the norms associated to profits made by the universities, but this is by no means the only example.
According to Mario Garcés, director of the non-governmental organization ECO (Education and Communication), the situation is unsustainable. “In Chile, education is no longer a means of social mobility and has become the opposite: a system that encourages the perpetuation of inequality.”
On the other hand, Giorgio Jackson, former president of the FEUC (Student Federation of the Catholic University) in 2011 and one of the main leaders of the student movement, believes that the solution lies in tax reforms, given that “Chile has the lowest tax rates in the OECD. If we can implement a different tax system, of course it would then be fair for everyone, all would have access to the same free education. In this way, it is not only the rich who would benefit from the poor, quite the contrary, the State would be able to finance an education for everyone.”

The national coordinator of the Educación 2020 citizen movement, Mario Waissbluth, thinks it necessary to “drastically change the regulatory model applied to education. If an institute receives resources from the state, it must sign a “concession contract” indicating the value of the offer and its quality, acquiring a compromise with actual drop out and degree length rates, setting reasonable fees in order to finance the educations of its students, and revealing all its sources of income, spending and any other transactions.

Rodrigo Troncoso, analyst at the Libertad y Desarrollo Institute, points out that improvements in the quality of education in Chile will depend on greater control, rather than decreased municipality as students demand: “They’re calling for an end to local administration in favour of greater centralization, which is in direct contradiction with global tendencies in education and the decentralized model in the countries with the best educational systems.

The problem with state schools is not that they depend on the local council, but on inefficient systems of accountability, incentives and management. The introduction of the Subvención
Escolar Preferencial (Preferential School Subsidy) and the nueva Ley de Calidad y Equidad (new Law Quality and Equality Law) contribute to the improvement of these aspects.”

Taking the current debate into account, it is logical to ask whether the quality of education of Chile corresponds to what is expected of a developed country, or whether this is an area in which deficiencies still exist and where the population is demanding greater fairness to continue to grow as a country as it has done thus far.

According to political analyst Patricio Navia, the student movement “represents a sign of democratic consolidation and of a stronger middle class culture in Chile”. Although Chileans find themselves face to face with the Promised Land, many are still waiting to cross over with great concerns and anxiety. They do not want the way to be blocked. They hope more bridges will be built for them. Above all, they do not want to get to the other side with a huge educational debt.”

Navia adds a comment that summarises the point made in this article: “Chile’s problem is not easy to solve and needs short and long-term solutions. But this problem is a product of the development that Chile has experienced in the last 22 years, and as such it must be looked upon as a sign that the country is moving forward and that its new problems are different to those of the past. They are those of more developed societies with an active and empowered middle class.”


Country- GDP % invested in education- Education System

New Zealand
State financed education. Also has private institutions. University is not free, but subsidised by the government, and there is a credit system.

State schools financed by the government and private institutions. University fees are paid interest free only once students start earning above $28000 per year.

State schools (90%) and private schools (10%). Free university education at state universities (financed with taxpayer money, given its tax rates are among the highest in the world, reaching 25%).

Most schools are state-owned. It has state and private universities. Private education is among the most expensive in the world but also among the best in terms of quality.

Free primary, secondary and higher education. No private universities: all state-owned and free.

  1. The challenges of higher education in Chile, Ignacio Sánchez, Centro de Políticas Públicas, UC, october 2011 I

2. The challenges of higher education in Chile, Ignacio Sánchez, Centro de Políticas Públicas, UC, october 2011
3. Extract of speech by de Giorgio Jackson, October 8th, 2011.
4. Column by Mario Waissbluth for the newspaper La Tercera,  November 21st, 2011.
5. Rodrigo Troncoso, column written for Diario Financiero, June 28th,  2011

Florencia de la Cruz
Florencia de la Cruz

More about the project Democratic Governance Watch
Latest videos