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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. 



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Out of the Shadows

Posted by 440443 Jan 14, 2010

         The Class of 2009 may find that the recession casts a long shadow, stretching over decades.  When the economy finally recovers, many of them will be working in the dim light of thwarted potential.  It is not only that unemployment delays careers, but that it obliges graduates to take jobs for which they are ill-suited.         

     Studies show that graduates entering the job market during a recession earn less than those who got their first break before or after the slump.  A professor at the Yale School of Management found that, in the United States, employees who graduated during the 1980s recession earned 6-7% less for every 1-point increase in the unemployment rate.   Time does not necessarily bring relief: 15 years later, they were earning 2.5% less than their older and younger colleagues. 

          A similar fate befell Japanese graduates caught in the wake of Japan’s stock market crash in 1989.  Those who had failed to secure jobs immediately upon graduation suffered long-lasting harmful effects, not only on their careers but on their health.  Today these workers, now in their thirties, account for 6 out of every 10 reported cases of depression, stress and work-related mental disabilities.  Why should this be so?  After all, once we have what we want – in this case, steady employment – don’t we tend to forget the bad years and even to make light of them? 

          Unfortunately, many of those graduates became ‘freeters’, a term for someone who takes on temporary or part-time work for want of anything better.  Bosses resisted hiring them for full-time positions because they lacked experience, which of course only frustrated their efforts to acquire any.  ‘Freeters’ became synonymous for a lazy, spoilt generation, one that scorned hard work and corporate loyalty.  This damning assessment resulted in an unfair and unconscious stigmatization of recession-bred graduates.

          It is the stigma of unemployment that is so damaging, as much as the experience of it, as anyone knows who has engaged in the humiliating dialogue with oneself over whether or not to apply for government assistance.  The staggering number of 16 to 24-year-olds without jobs today is eroding hope and ambition.  In the UK, the sense of worthlessness, that life has little to offer, already has a toe-hold on unemployed youth, according to a recent survey conducted by the Prince's Trust.

          Delaying graduation or enrolling for further study can help.  Not only is the stain of being ‘unemployed’ wiped from a CV, but extra skills are acquired.  Even unpaid internships are valuable.  The question then arises: is it wiser for a graduate in computer science to accept an unpaid internship in his or her field or a paid position as manager in a supermarket?  When asked about this career detour, has any job applicant out there, hoping to impress a prospective employer by projecting confidence and mastery in her field, ever dared to answer ‘I needed the job’?            

          Recessions cast a long shadow, and workers with a place in the sun are often unaware that fortune had smiled on them.  Graduating a year later or earlier could have made all the difference.  


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