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Chile’s rightward shift raises doubts over free tuition scheme

A change from left- to right-wing leadership in Chile could have dramatic consequences for the country’s university system, according to academics who fear that a social mobility scheme set in place to improve access to higher education could be rolled back or used to increase privatisation of the sector.

The Gratuidad programme was introduced in 2014 by outgoing president Michelle Bachelet, levying taxes on large businesses in order to pay tuition fees for students from the bottom 50 per cent of the income scale. The scheme has since been expanded to cover the poorest 60 per cent of students – some 270,000 people – but has come under increasing scrutiny, with tax revenues failing to meet expectations.

The newly elected president, Sebastián Piñera – a billionaire businessman who made his fortune by introducing credit cards to Chile – won 54.6 per cent of the public vote last month with promises to boost the economy and lower taxes on corporate earnings once again.

While remaining sceptical over Gratuidad, he vowed to maintain it due to its popularity, pledging to expand the scheme to vocational education courses linked to private business corporations during his term.

This has raised concerns about whether there will be sufficient funding available to support students who have traditionally qualified for free tuition at public universities.

“President Piñera is not a champion for public education and state universities are preparing to experience some hardship during his mandate,” said José Salazar, director of the academic division of the University of Valparaíso, suggesting that private providers “could expect to receive access” to support previously earmarked for the public sector.

“It is fair to say that the new president has brought some uncertainty in relation to Gratuidad, mainly due to his emphasis on technical and vocational education,” Mr Salazar continued. “As often happens in Chilean politics, this new orientation has some hidden consequences.”

The vocational and technical sector is different from traditional university degree providers in that enrolment is highly concentrated among fewer institutions, and therefore highly competitive. “All [are] privately run by people and organisations akin to the ideology of the new government,” said Mr Salazar. “If Gratuidad is expanded towards this group of institutions, then you may expect a greater privatisation of the sector as they could secure more students and greater public funding.”

Speaking in April last year, Mr Piñera, who served as president once before – between 2010 and 2014 – pledged to remove free university education for those who did not need “arbitrary help”. In the week leading up to the presidential election in November, however, Mr Piñera announced a commitment to making up to 90 per cent of technical education courses free for students during his term.

“We are going to expand the free service, but we are going to benefit the professional technical students that make up almost half the student body,” said Mr Piñera, who takes office in March.

The most recent polls undertaken by leading national market researchers Criteria suggest that national confidence in the new policies is divided, with 52 per cent of respondents sceptical that expansion of Gratuidad will ever come to fruition. Sixty-one per cent of respondents said that they did not trust the new president to make good on promises to lower taxes for the lower-middle classes.

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