In Chile in the early 1990’s, resources for higher education were awarded mainly on an incremental basis and did not take public accountability into consideration. At that time, the Institutional Development Fund (FDI) had begun operations and its aim was to support investment in university academic infrastructure. However, it did not take the assessment of results into consideration either. Very few funds for research were awarded competitively (in CONICYT, National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research) and they included the creation of the necessary balance sheets.
At the time, most Higher Education Institutions (HEI) did not take advantage of strategic or long-term planning. Information for evidence-based decision-making was scarce and very often inconsistent across different areas. Performance indicators (retention and student graduate rates, for instance) were scarcely used and in the majority of cases, were not open to public discussion. The tertiary education system was extremely deregulated and varied greatly in terms of quality; no formal guarantee of academic quality existed on a national scale. However, self-regulation processes, based on self-assessment with external monitoring from visiting HE experts, had begun implementation in the Higher Education Council (Consejo Superior de Educación) to aid with university autonomy, and in Universidad de Concepción and Universidad de Chile with the improvement of academic and institutional quality. Undoubtedly, these processes were the starting point for generating capacities in quality assurance in Chile.
In 1998 the Government of Chile, in conjunction with the World Bank (IBRD) via loan number 4404-CH, agreed on the design and implementation of an ambitious improvement programme to guarantee HE quality. It was given the name MECESUP. As university admissions were booming, MECESUP funded academic improvement mechanisms in the 25 CRUCH (Council of Rectors) universities, thus contributing to an important increase in the number of students who had access to a quality higher education.
The MECESUP programme considered one way of strengthening institutional capacities was to experiment with the design and implementation of a voluntary accreditation process – which started with study programmes and then targeted the universities themselves) –, the creation of a competitive fund to improve HE academic infrastructure to replace the former Institutional Development Fund (FDI) – based on historical awards – and the introduction of public accountability.
Following the lessons learnt during the implementation of this first stage (1999-2004), the Government of Chile pledged to continue with this initiative in 2005 and signed a new loan agreement (7317-CH) with the World Bank which would focus the Competitive Fund on academic innovation and the modernization of undergraduate degree programmes, and would introduce, albeit experimentally, new Performance-based Agreements (PBAs) in a restricted number of accredited public universities. At this stage, institutional eligibility was opened to private accredited universities for PhD programmes and teacher training. The total amount of funds for this initiative for the period 1999-2008 ascended to USD 450 million.
Likewise, the strengthening of institutional capacities primarily took into consideration the carrying out of important strategic research for higher education, mechanisms to modernize processes and ICTs in Higher Education Division (DIVESUP) of the Chilean Ministry of Education (MINEDUC), and support in managing the Competitive Fund.
The accreditation process was designed and implemented gradually as more experience was gained during Higher Education Council autonomy initiatives, and the self-assessment of programmes which were being set up at some universities. The fundamental principle was to accredit university degree programmes via voluntary participation – an objective CRUCH Universities had supported from the outset. Then in 2005, this initial objective was extended to institutional accreditation which was considered a pre-requisite to access new state-funded student loans.
Linking quality assurance – based on externally verified self-assessment – to the invitation to academic innovation proposals (AIF), drove the development of new solutions to existing structural problems, thus assuring a strong sense of ownership of the reforms on a decentralized level. Accreditation enabled institutions to identify their weaknesses and the measures to overcome them. Similarly, funding for academic quality improvement provided the means so that corrective actions could be taken. In this way, the combination of these two instruments meant key weaknesses detected in the system were corrected and the quality assurance exercise was useful and effective. A good example of this synergy may be seen in the support offered by the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) to Chilean PhD programmes, where the eligibility for competitions depended on accreditation results. These days, experimental accreditation has given rise to Law No. 20.129 (17th November, 2006). It is voluntary, with the exception of Medicine and Pedagogy where it is compulsory), and has a modern and up-to-date design. It governs institutions, and both undergraduate and graduate degree programmes, thus widely covering institutional and programme enrolment figures. The Chilean National Commission for Accreditation (CNA) is the body in charge of the Fund. It began quality assurance activities in 2007.
The Competitive Fund and AIF took advantage of previous experience in research funding allocations to support quality improvement in vocational HE training programmes, undergraduate university teaching and postgraduate programmes. In practice, it has focused primarily on the development of academic staff for: i) advanced studies, research and postgraduate courses, ii) the continued support of national PhD programmes, iii) gradual evolution of the current undergraduate educational model to a student-focussed model (based on learning outcomes and competences), iv) the continued introduction of innovation in academia, v) training for teaching staff and students to achieve better teaching-learning and vi) the improvement of management capacities via institutional research and strategic planning.
Over the past ten year implementation period, AIF has achieved excellent results, significantly improving equity in the access to quality in the Chilean tertiary education system and accelerating the development of many of its institutions. This has included the hiring and training of new PhD academics and students, the remedial programmes on basic competences for academically-underperforming students, the renovation and modernization of libraries, classrooms, laboratories and student services, the integration of ICTs into teaching-learning, the curricular reform and the improvement of teaching efficiency and its indicators. The associative work that AIF has encouraged over the years is worthy of mention; it has seen the creation of new associated PhD programmes (Physics and Biotechnology at Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and Universidad Santa María) and in the network (Chemistry, Physics, Electronic Engineering and Electronics at Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica, Universidad de Concepción, Universidad de Santiago, Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Universidad Santa María and Universidad Andrés Bello), important innovations of curricular reform at undergraduate level and the development and implementation of the SCT-Chile Credit Transfer System by CRUCH Universities.
The AIF has also been a remarkable instrument for institutional capacity building to install new practices geared towards improving institutional management and academic quality. For the first time in higher education, the Fund introduced strategic analysis in the proposed design of competition-based proposals, and in HEI, the management of results-based projects, the definition of performance indicators and annual targets, and the monitoring and evaluation of their impact as a measure of public accountability. Special mention should be made regarding the support for the design and implementation of 21 teaching-learning units in charge of teacher training, ICT integration and improved student learning, and 16 institutional research units (with two network projects) to enhance programme monitoring and evaluation, evidence-based decision making and benchmarking.
However, the Academic Innovation Fund, as a single (competitive) resource allocation mechanism for academic improvement, has shown some limitations, specifically related to the difficulty in dealing with complex institutional issues and problems, such as strategic planning, general improvement of management, monitoring and evaluation of the impact on goals and results, and the evaluation of the impact on learning and employability of graduates. Therefore, the MECESUP programme in its second stage is focusing the AIF on curricular reform and academic innovation and is introducing pilot Performance-based Agreements. These Agreements and Institutional Improvement Plans, signed by Universidad de Tarapacá, Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Bío Bío and Universidad de la Frontera, were completed in 2011, demonstrating the fulfilment of ambitious objectives and goals, along with excellent performances which bode very well for future scaling exercises.
At the same time, negotiations began for new Performance-based Agreements in the area of revitalization and development of the Humanities, Social Sciences and the Arts with the Universidad de Magallanes, Universidad de Talca, Universidad de Valparaiso, Universidad de Tarapacá and Universidad de La Frontera. These Agreements with regional state universities were signed given the pilot experiences from 2007 to 2009.
For the period 2011 - 2014, offering PBAs to all accredited HEI is being considered, scaling the pilot and its extension to the Humanities and Social Sciences in a new phase of development to improve the quality of the Chilean tertiary education system. To this end, the Ministry of Education has prioritized the following areas of public policy: Teacher Training, Training of Engineers, Tuning of Curricula, Internationalization of PhD Programs and Quality of Learning and Management, AIF2.