Chile’s Higher Education Reform: Prioritizing Technical Education

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The future of the Chilean economy and its ability to innovate will depend on the quality of technical education. This topic, which has been historically underestimated, must be prioritized in the next higher education reform that will be discussed in Congress in 2016. 

Financing and accreditation reforms introduced in 2005 and expanded later have allowed a very rapid increase of enrollment in higher education, doubling the number of students in ten years (1.2 million in 2016 in a total population of 18 million). Simultaneously, student registration in technical higher education has been growing at a faster pace than at universities (see figure below). However, quality of learning, relevance of education, and employability continue to lag behind.


By conducting an overview of international experiences and an analysis of the national reality, one can identify 10 key areas of action that can help improve technical education in all its forms: Post-secondary 2-to-4-year careers offered by universities, Professional Institutes (4 years) and Technical Training Centers (2 years).

  1. Empower technical education. This means presenting a convincing narrative that values learning by doing, the connection between ability and execution, and the value of being both a student and a worker. It must also demonstrate that, in an evolving world, technical education is a path for lifelong training. Empowering technical education involves implementing it as a differentiated subsystem within higher education instead of a subordinate one.
  1. Structure the higher education system with two parallel subsystems: university and technical or technological. Furthermore, it is essential to define whether universities will continue to offer technical careers (which currently represent 11% of enrollment) or whether this function will be progressively assigned to the technical colleges subsystem.
  1. Make institutional quality accreditation compulsory. Most technical colleges have no accreditation. Only a third of technical degrees are either accredited or in the process of accreditation. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of Technical Training Centers and Professional Institutes decreased from 161 to 54 and from 81 to 42, respectively. This process must continue in order to reach sizes that can sustain a system with quality teachers, equipment, networks, and digital platforms for international reach. Accreditation must be compulsory.
  1. Organize degrees and majors hierarchically. In order to achieve quality, it is imperative to deal with the current confusion and dispersion by systemizing curricula and establishing grade equivalencies with similar competencies. Moreover, it is crucial to shift to an integrated system of technical institutions that is capable of better organizing and systemizing abilities and competencies for two and four-year degrees.
  1. Specify the field (and boundaries) of technical higher education. In addition to regulating the duration of degrees and entry requirements, it is necessary to better demarcate the boundaries between technical education and training programs such as those in the “Servicio Nacional de Capacitación” (SENCE, a public  institution, funded by the government  and companies,  that trains and reconverts workers). Nearly 25% of students in technical programs are over 25 years old and the majority of them study in the afternoons after work. This percentage will increase rapidly. Defining this boundary is relevant in order to estimate the potential reach of free higher education.
  1. Strengthen the relationship with firms. It is imperative to establish more active involvement of productive organizations and businesses when defining curricula and specializations. Also, forming skill boards including companies in each of the priority areas for the national productive development strategy.
  1. Focus on teacher training. Technical education teachers must possess specialized abilities such as operating in interaction with industry, teaching how to learn by doing, developing a teamwork mentality, and elevating students’ analytical skills in order to solve concrete problems. The abilities required from these teachers are different from those of university academics.
  1. Favor regional needs. Regional development must involve technicians and specialized professionals in the strategic sectors of each region. The fifteen state technological centers recently created by law must contribute to the quality of regional technical education.
  1. Reformulate secondary technical and professional education. This type of education currently has two insufficiencies: low employability rates and poor training for entry into higher education. These two factors negatively affect 40% of secondary students, around 200,000 of the most vulnerable ones. It would be convenient to consider a gradual substitution of the technical-professional option in the last 2 years of secondary schooling (11th and 12th grade). Instead, more hours of schooling could be assigned to basic learning in science and humanities and students that graduate from secondary education could be offered two years of post-secondary technical education for free.
  1. Design a new institutional framework. Create a management board for technical Education in the future Higher Education Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education and form a National Technical Training Board that coordinates the Ministries of Education, Labor, and Economy.

The aforementioned needs are similar across all countries in Latin America, even if to different extents depending on the development of each educational system. The urgency to implement those measures and policies will increase in the coming years in order to improve productivity, diversify production, incorporate new exporting technologies, and compete globally in goods and services of greater value added..

Asian countries will continue to widen the productivity gap with respect to Latin America and the Caribbean.. Singapore, Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, as well as Malaysia and Thailand in recent times, have improved their technical education, math, and science priorities to train engineers and technicians for future-oriented industries. These experiences, as well as those of developed countries, are valuable for Latin Americans, who  should regularly monitor and learn from the best global practices in order to reduce the skills gap. 

An earlier version of this article was published in Spanish by El Mercurio. To see the original text, click here.

Sergio Bilar is a Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue. He has had a distinguished political career in Chile, including the position of Minister of Education (2003-2005). Member of the Government Consultative Council on Higher Education (2015).

Photo credit: Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa / Flickr /  CC BY 2.0


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