Chile is about to become the first South American member of the OECD. It has enjoyed a degree of prosperity and stability unusual in the region, and in areas such as education its success has been remarkable.
In 1990, only 14% of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 were in higher education; that figure surpassed 40% by 2008. Yet this is not an unqualified success, especially for PhDs. Students taking advanced degrees in OECD countries averaged 2.4% on 2006. In Chile it was a mere 0.2%.
The government plans to invigorate its R&D sector by increasing the number of doctorates. It has already come a long way. In 1993, there were 238 students in 15 PhD programmes; by 2008, it was 3,000 in 155. A new scholarship abroad programme, Becas Chile, will add another 30,000 PhD, Masters and technical degrees by 2015. But higher education in at home in many ways reflects the country’s unique geography: long and narrow.
Persuading more students to take advanced degrees will be tough. Undergraduate programmes in Chile are already long - between 5 and 8 years. More disheartening is that of the 3,000 students who did soldier on, only 258 received their PhD last year. These results are mirrored at the undergraduate level. With an astonishing 28% of the population enrolled in some form of educational programme, the suspicion is that either students take longer to get their degrees or that they fail.
Part of the problem is that educational paths never cross. The government is trying to break the isolation of Chilean universities (the CRUCH – the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities) from Professional Institutes (IP) and Technical Training Centres (CFT). Students hoping to transfer from one type institution to another should ready themselves for a Sisyphean task that often requires them to start at the bottom, regardless of previous studies. In one case, a university refused to recognise the courses taken by a student at the university’s own CFT.
Cost is another barrier. Per capita, Chileans spend 30% of income on higher education, 84% of which is borne entirely by the individual. This is three times higher than in the United States, Japan or Australia. Loans are available, but the alarming number of families who default (40%) forces many students to drop out. A 2006 UNESCO study found that 26% students from the two upper income quintiles dropped out before their fourth year. Among the two lowest quintiles, the figure jumped to 65%.
This is tragic. Chile’s greatest success has been to open higher education to the poor. In a single generation, the number of students from Chile’s two lowest income-quintiles has multiplied by five.
It should not be forgotten that despite these weaknesses R&D in Chile is strong in comparison with other South American countries. The quality of its science is good; the number of scientific papers published by Chilean researchers has tripled in ten years; they are more frequently cited than those of other South American researchers. But if Chile intends to further strengthen its R&D sector and beckon more students into doctoral programmes, it will have to shorten the route to Parnassus and clear the path to keep those less economically fortunate from abandoning the climb altogether.
For further reading, see:
- Tertiary Education in Chile, OECD and IBRD/The World Bank 2009.
- The Bio Bio Region, Chile: Self Evaluation Report, OECD Reviews of Higher Education in Regional and City Development, IMHE.