19th February 2021

Book in Focus

University Curriculum Transformations in Context

Global-Local Dynamics of Policy Processes

By Victoria Valdebenito MacFarlane, Tom O’Donoghue and Lesley Vidovich

Education systems and universities around the world are currently seeking to strengthen their competitive positioning in today’s global knowledge era through curriculum policy transformations. These are taking place as a result of ideological shifts and policy flows, as well as networks between global and local levels, leading to radical university changes in curricula.

Chile is no exception to this general trend. Here, universities are particularly aiming to address the challenges presented by globalization, internationalization and the global knowledge society. A major associated strategy involves the production and enactment of what is termed a ‘21st century curriculum policy’, which refers to a curriculum that promotes the acquisition of such higher-order skills as creative and critical thinking, collaboration and problem-solving skills.

University Curriculum Transformations in Context: Global-Local Dynamics of Policy Processes details associated international influences in this regard, and presents a detailed exposition of how some universities in Chile have been addressing the challenges they face. In this edition of Book in Focus, co-author Victoria Valdebenito Mac Farlane discusses the various crises that have affected the Chilean higher education system from the Pinochet era to the present day, and presents her analysis of what more needs to be done.


The Crisis of the Education System in Chile

By Victoria Valdebenito Mac Farlane

Chile is a Latin American country which regularly draws media attention due to its social movements, especially in the educational field, with scholars and evidence showing that there is huge a ‘crisis in education’. Regarding the latter, during the ‘80s, when the country was under Pinochet’s dictatorship, different neoliberal structures and policies were implemented. This dictatorship started in 1973 and finished in 1989.

However, how did this current crisis come about?

Specifically, in the university system, in 1981, the General Law of universities was promulgated. Before this, the higher education system in Chile consisted only of public universities. With this new legal framework, the dictatorship initiated the privatisation of higher education, ensuring the possibility of creating private universities. Also, this completely disarticulated the network of universities existing at that time by regionalising them and dividing them into a number of institutions without major links to each other. Before 1981, there was a one-level, one-sector system, composed of two state and six private universities, all of which were funded by the public treasury because, in 1923, under the presidency of Arturo Alessandri Palma, Parliament approved public financing for all universities, both public and private.

Drastic transformations were made between the 1980s and the 1990s in higher education in Chile, directed at achieving three main goals. First, they sought to open up the higher education system through a liberalisation of rules for the creation of new institutions as stated before. They also aimed to create institutional diversification in a vertical three-tier system consisting of universities, professional institutes, and technical training centres. The third goal was to partially transfer the cost of state-financed institutions to the students and their families, thus forcing them to diversify their funding sources. Following the initiation of these reforms, private universities and professional training centres became a lucrative business in Chile.

The dictatorship of Pinochet ended after negotiations between the dictatorship’s administrators and a section of the political opposition, namely the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, an alliance formed by the Christian Democratic Party, the Radical Party, and the Socialist Party. Despite this transition to democracy, the military regime approved of, and published, the ‘Organic Constitutional Law on Teaching’ (or ‘LOCE’) in its last day in office, 10 March 1990. This legal framework still acts to regulate primary, secondary and higher education. It was designed to ensure the permanence of the changes established in the 1980s. Subsequent developments took place against a background where, with the return to democracy in 1990, the new government was the inheritor of a system that functioned with deregulated market mechanisms, little state intervention and a diversified funding model for public universities.

The coalition government triumphed in five of the last seven presidential elections: in 1990, with President Patricio Aylwin; in 1994, with President Eduardo Frei; in 2000, with President Ricardo Lagos; and in 2006 and in 2013, with President Michelle Bachelet (Cox, 2006). Bachelet’s administration introduced a series of modifications in the education sector which maintained the neoliberal core of previous policies. In March 2018, the right-wing politician Sebastian Piñera returned to power, retreating from the reforms in higher education promoted by the previous government.

The reforms noted above have had negative effects. As some have noted, the education system has major contradictions and problems, mainly in terms of the quality of education. This perceived poor quality has been revealed through the results of students on standardised tests, both national and international, with deep gaps having been shown to exist between the performance of students in the public school system and that of those enrolled in the private system. Also, the education system in Chile has problems of inequity, which reflect inequities in other areas of society; Chile is one of the two OECD countries in the region where there are extremely high levels of unequal distribution of wealth, alongside Mexico.

To address the challenges posed by inequity in higher education, student aid from the government was, until 2015, targeted using both loans and scholarships according to socioeconomic needs. The government of Chile provided two types of funding for universities: a direct tax contribution and an indirect tax contribution. The former was the most important instrument of state funding for traditional universities (those created before 1981). It was a freely available subsidy allocated based on historical criteria, with a small amount also being allocated according to annual efficiency indicators. A second lot of funding was made available for all institutions of higher education (both traditional and private universities, as well as professional institutes and technical training centres) and was awarded following the conducting of a competitive application system. In addition, there was an institutional development fund, whose purpose was to raise returns from the use of resources by improving operational, administrative, and financial management, along with introducing quality information systems and strengthening the management of teaching. However, changes took place in higher education funding at the end of 2015, when ‘Law Number 20.882 for the Provision of Gratuity’ was introduced, modifying the previous structure.

The government’s student aid system consists of three schemes that provide loans and grants of financial support, while also covering the essential education expenses of poor young people. These schemes are the ‘National Scholarship Fund’, the ‘University Credit Solidarity Fund’, and the ‘State-Guaranteed Loan’ (Law 20.027).

Despite all the efforts noted above, the education system continues to be criticised, especially in relation to the funding of the traditional universities. The University of Chile, which is one of the two universities in the country listed among the top 500 in the world according to the ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ (Shanghai Ranking) and the ‘Scimago Institutions Ranking’, is one target in this regard. Until 2015, the State in Chile directly financed only 8% of the university’s activities, even though it had the highest level of academic productivity and scientific research in the country. Some claimed that the state had forgotten its traditional universities and that, in its support for private universities, it was undermining public higher education. The adoption of ‘Law 20.882 for the provision of Gratuity’ in 2015 was a response to such criticism.

Regarding the above, a report of the Comptroller General Office in Chile indicated that, in 2012, only 42% of state funding went to the 16 public universities, while 32% went to the 9 traditional private universities, and 26% went to other private universities. In addition, some of these private universities have been mentioned in the media as being concerned with promoting profit before access or quality education. Furthermore, reports have indicated that of the 10 universities that received most government funding in 2012, more than 60% were new private universities.

What is termed the ‘education crisis’ has led to the emergence of various protest movements in Chile. The most significant amongst these has been the student movement and the teacher movement. Since the return to democracy in Chile in the 1990s, social movements have been slowly rearticulated. Dissatisfaction with learning methods and results was highlighted in the media in the first half of 2006. At the time, a new social movement, consisting mainly of primary and high school students, focused on a series of such education-related problems as quality, equity gaps within the system, and disputes regarding the provision of both private and public education.

In response to the demands of students, the first government of President Bachelet drew up the new General Law of Education in 2006. It was drafted by the Commission for Education, a group formed by the government that year, and included a small number of personalities from academia, from the primary school sector, and from the secondary school sector. The proposed law aimed to improve the education system, but it did not change the ‘Organic Constitutional Law on Teaching’. It was organised around four axes: teacher development, institutional frameworks, financing, and superintendence. As of today, however, significant changes have not taken place.

Between 2014 and 2015, teachers and students were protesting once more. This was considerable in terms of the amount of time involved and the number of people participating. The revival of the teachers’ movement was influenced by a government project of 2015 called the ‘National Teaching Plan’. The teachers’ union did not agree with this plan due to its historical demands not being addressed. These related to several matters. First, there is an historical debt, which refers to the payment of retroactive salaries, as teachers’ wages were reduced during the dictatorship of Pinochet. Secondly, there is the matter of the importance that teachers attached to the need for a recovery in public education. This refers to the demand of the social movement in Chile to end privatisation and strengthen public and state education. Also, during the same period, students were mobilised to demand the improvement of public education and the end of the profit motive in education.

The approval of ‘Law 20.882 for the provision of Gratuity’ in 2015 was a response to these demands. Currently, President Piñera continues a populist discourse about the quality of education. However, there have been no significant changes to the system. Also, against this background, and using their higher levels of autonomy, universities have been undergoing curriculum policy changes in the last two decades, related to US and European traditions, obviating the deep roots of the crisis.

Although the curriculum is much more than content, currently there is not much debate around this topic in Chile. Issues around the curriculum have ‘gone quiet’ as other priorities such as funding, admission and COVID-19 have moved to the top of reform agendas in Chilean higher education. Moreover, accreditation of quality institutions remains a trending topic. However, some experts criticise the lack of inclusion of equity criteria such as gender in these processes.

After the triumph of the plebiscite on 18 October 2019 to change Pinochet’s Political Constitution and the start of constituent process to draft the new document, which has been called a “social awakening” in the country, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of higher education. Currently, efforts from the state, through its Higher Education Division at the Ministry of Education, are being directed towards making changes to the university admission system, while adapting to funding changes. Regarding the latter, for the 2021 higher education budget a cut of 10% has been decided due to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For some academic authorities, this means a deepening in the crisis of public universities, referring to the minimal role played by state funding in higher education and the overall lack of national support for it. At the same time, a new entry system called the ‘Transition Test’ will replace the ‘PSU’, the previous university selection test. On the official website of the Higher Education Division, this has full advertising, as it is a priority for the current government. Along with this, ensuring secure sanitary measures for all students sitting tests in early January 2021, and a gradual return to face-to-face activities for higher education institutions are the other highlighted main concerns.

Issues around the curriculum matter because of their influence over equity. In recent decades, there has been improvements in equity in Chile, according to such quantitative indicators as access and enrolment (especially from women), retention, graduation, and remedial programs to compensate for the lack of academic resources for disadvantage students. Nonetheless, curriculum issues at universities in Chile seem to run separately and independently from equity debates. Data show that universities’ efforts around equity have also included gender measures in recent years. Despite this, however, regarding the huge relevance of the curriculum as an artefact that expresses what society values, there is a lot to do to make it a priority in Chile. Current changes in the country brought about by the new constitutional process offer hope and an opportunity to establish new legal structures and to structure a system which can overcome the noted inequalities.


Victoria Valdebenito MacFarlane, PhD, is a Professor in the School of Psychology of Adolofo Ibáñez University, Chile. Her work focuses on research and analysis in the fields of the sociology of education, policy, health, art and culture. She has experience in theatre and the formation of audiences, and also in complementary therapies through her work since 2008 as a clown doctor in Chile and Australia.

Tom O’Donoghue is Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Western Australia. He is also an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He specialises in the history of education with particular reference to generating understanding of the historical antecedents to contemporary education developments. His work is informed by theoretical perspectives from the social sciences, especially those clustered under the label of ‘interpretivist sociology’. He is a former President of the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society.

Lesley Vidovich is Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Western Australia. Her major field of interest is education policy and practices. Much of her research concerns education policy trends within the context of globalisation. She has investigated a wide range of policy domains in both the schooling and higher education sectors across Asia, Europe and Africa, as well as Australia.


University Curriculum Transformations in Context: Global-Local Dynamics of Policy Processes is out now. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.