This is the second (and last) part of the previous article, this time exemplifying some of the consequences of the “Chilean number addiction” in Education public policies.
Education and the youth provide a good example. After all, the biggest Chilean riots during democracy before these ones, took place because of students demands in Santiago. Higher Education (and education in general) is also an area where decision-making is extremely “numeralized”. Of this I have some experience, since I had the pleasure to be invited to help with some of the numeric and data series research of a book published by my university and authored by professor PhD Hugo Lavados and Ramon Berrios, titled “Policies for University Development: Principles and Evidences”. I had a great time and I learned a lot working with the data series in this book. Made me look at all of the numbers and figures available about Higher Education in Chile. And I must admit, almost all of them were cosy and nice and made us feel really good. For example, in 1990 less than 13% of the population (18-24 years old) attended higher education. In 2013 it was already over 35% and probably today it’s already over 40%.
We can measure many things. We can measure how many people are studying, how much they are earning, how much are they buying… But could it be possible that there are some things we just cannot measure?
Since before the 90’s, you are admitted to a university in Chile after taking a standardized exam measuring high school contents. With some modifications through all these years, the exam (PSU: Prueba de Selección Universitaria, University Selection Test) plays an important role in the system. As any standardized test (like TOEFL of GRE today, for example), your final score does not depend exclusively in your own performance on the test, but also in the relative performance of the rest. This also implies that is a particularly difficult and stressful test. In no case it is aimed to be answered totally by a normal student. It’s a selection test.
In Chile, most of the undergraduate students study in private universities, but the system of admission is the same for private or public institutions, and the score in the PSU plays a key role, mainly because it is part of the financial system behind the university system in Chile. Public and private universities in Chile receive some funding from the state for every student they receive. But they don’t get the same amount of money for any student in any career. They get money according to the points in the PSU that the student got. This makes universities in admission period (starting now and until March) follow all kind of strategies to attract students with high scores. But also creates a huge market of preparation for the PSU (institutions called “pre-Universities” in Chile), and rules the agenda, focus and efforts of teaching during high school. Once again, numbers take relevance, and parents are watching the average PSU points of the students of the school where they want their 6-year-old daughter to study. And worst of all: put a terrible pressure on students in the worst period.
I experienced by myself what is to feel that the big conversation about your future is to wait only for the results of this test, because with a high number you can do whatever you want in any institution, but if the number is low… you might just have to accept that your dreams and the future you wanted for yourself is impossible, is denied to you, and do whatever you are allowed to with the number of points you got.
Might be obvious, but I think it is important to highlight as well that the correlation between the score in the PSU test and the income of the families are strongly correlated (numbers, again). Regretfully, this is a very well proven phenomenon as well.
The PSU test is implemented every year in the month of December. The test supposed to be taken on December 2019 was postponed to this month, and just some days ago there were several attacks by students in test taking locations, as well as the destruction of many exams, and the leaking of the content of one of the tests.
While the leaders of the PSU boycott, 12th grade high school students have been publicly menaced by the Ministry of Education in Chile, the uncertainty about this admission period grow, and the demands of students grow.
Today is 3 times more likely to access higher education and 4 times more likely to study in a university in Chile than in the 90’s.
But no one is demanding more university coverage. The claims of the population, and in this case of the student movement, addresses directly to that area in which our numbers never watched, and that we put in a second or third relevance: how it feels.
If we accept that, then a big truth is revealed to us, because people in Chile have found a single, very clear word to express what they want, and it’s that one: dignity. Whatever that means, that is it. That’s what we missed in the implementation of our policies, perhaps because we were too pleased looking at our numbers that we forgot about things without statistics and time series.
One of the lessons of this crisis for Chile and for the world is to be careful with the use of numbers as indicators. An indicator indicates whatever it measures. GDP measures what it measures, and if you are cruel enough, you will not prevent to have a total collapsed society even with the biggest GDP in the world. Be careful.