Free tuition in Chile ‘fails to im­prove ac­cess for poor’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

With con­tin­ued de­bate sur­round­ing univer­sity tuition fees in the US and the UK, cam­paign­ers of­ten turn to free higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems de­ployed in coun­tries such as Ger­many for com­par­i­son.

But, as many point to the ex­is­tence of fees as a bar­rier to ac­cess for lower-in­come pupils, pol­i­cy­mak­ers should take heed of the re­cent ex­pe­ri­ences of Chile, ac­cord-

ing to the au­thors of a new re­port.

A pol­icy set up by the Chilean gov­ern­ment in 2016 to al­low free tuition for lower-in­come stu­dents has not yet seen pos­i­tive re­sults, and re­searchers sug­gest the well-in­ten­tioned pol­icy could even have a neg­a­tive im­pact on so­cial mo­bil­ity in Chile.

Gra­tu­idad was im­ple­mented on top of ex­ist­ing schol­ar­ships and tuition-fee loans as part of a bid to tackle low grad­u­a­tion rates and a grow­ing class di­vide be­tween pupils who do and do not go on to fur­ther study. The scheme ini­tially ap­plied to univer­sity and col­lege stu­dents from fam­i­lies in the lower 50 per cent of in­come dis­tri­bu­tion, ex­pand­ing to 60 per cent from 2018.

Anal­y­sis by Ja­son Delisle, res­i­dent fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, and An­drés Ber­nasconi, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the School of Ed­u­ca­tion in the Pon­tif­i­cal Catholic Univer­sity of Chile, sug­gests the ini­tia­tive has left uni­ver­si­ties “un­der­funded”, and has “crowded out” stu­dents from the very poor­est back­grounds for whom the scheme is in­tended.

“In­stead of uni­ver­sal free col­lege, gra­tu­idad can best be de­scribed as hav­ing re­placed a sys­tem of tar­geted fi­nan­cial aid and cost shar­ing [tuition fees] with a sys­tem that has slightly less tar­geted aid and mod­er­ately less cost shar­ing,” the au­thors note in Lessons from Chile’s Tran­si­tion to Free Col­lege, pub­lished by the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

Ex­pand­ing schol­ar­ship ben­e­fits to mid­dle-in­come fam­i­lies as well as the poor­est pupils proves coun­ter­in­tu­itive, since uni­ver­si­ties can af­ford to be more se­lec­tive in their ad­mis­sions pro­cesses, they ex­plain. Data col­lected from pre­vi­ous stud­ies in the re­gion show lower-in­come stu­dents tend to have lower test scores and are there­fore “crowded out” from in­sti­tu­tions they may once have been ac­cepted into.

The full im­pact of the two-yearold gra­tu­idad scheme is yet to be seen, but Mr Delisle and Pro­fes­sor Ber­nasconi say US pol­i­cy­mak­ers should be “wary” of the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of a free sys­tem, which was de­bated by Demo­cratic can­di­dates in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. En­rol­ment rates for low­in­come stu­dents at US in­sti­tu­tions “could de­cline if free col­lege pro­pos­als lead to the type of crowd­ing out pre­dicted to oc­cur in Chile’s sys­tem”, they say.

An­other weak­ness high­lighted is that not all uni­ver­si­ties are el­i­gi­ble or will­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the gra­tu­idad scheme; 30 of Chile’s 60 pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties – the ma­jor­ity of which are for-profit busi­nesses or have too low ac­cred­i­ta­tion – failed to join the pro­gramme in 2016.

Pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, which are obliged to of­fer free tuition un­der the scheme, ar­gue that gov­ern­ment re­im­burse­ments are not suf­fi­cient to make up for the rev­enue lost from tuition fee charges.

At an av­er­age cost of $7,600 (£5,398) per year for pub­lic univer­sity cour­ses – half the av­er­age an­nual fam­ily in­come – tuition fees in Chile are among the high­est in the world. Only Bri­tish and pri­vate US uni­ver­si­ties have higher prices rel­a­tive to gross na­tional prod­uct per capita.

“The coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties, which have the high­est cost struc­tures, now face bud­get deficits be­cause of gra­tu­idad,” the re­port’s au­thors state. “They will likely have to cut spend­ing to make up for de­clin­ing rev­enue.”

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