Interview to Ignacio Sánchez, president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile: “The use of grade ranking is a step towards inclusion”
The UC, part of the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCh), incorporated students’ ranking in their respective schools within the recent selection process. How important was this decision?
In the last few years, the UC has taken on several initiatives aimed at increasing the inclusion of its students. This policy is based on facilitating access to students who, for different reasons (socioeconomic, cultural, sensory or motor disability, religious, political, etc.), were not applying to or enrolling in the UC. For that reason, along with consolidating the programs that we already had in place (PentaUC, increasing BEA scholarships), the Talent and Inclusion program was begun in the School of Engineering and later in the Law School, and expanded to five more programs this year. The incorporation of grade ranking is a step towards inclusion, by increasing the equity of access in a process that is greatly influenced by the PSU, a test which is highly related to the quality of education received during primary and secondary school, and is therefore correlated to the students’ socioeconomic status and social and cultural capital.
Is this a reward for the best students or an issue of justice for those who have not had the same opportunities?
Grade ranking rewards the effort, dedication and talent of students in the areas in which they perform. Therefore, on the one hand it has no gap (unlike the PSU and high school transcript), and on the other, it highlights students from public, subsidized and private education, and thus marks an advance in the equality and quality of the whole system. It must be noted that the greatest progress in terms of justice and equality will be achieved when students from different educational backgrounds truly receive the same quality of education.
The deans have the freedom to choose, within a range, what percentage they will give to the ranking. Do you think the best thing would be a high and equal percentage for all?
At this time, and for this year’s admissions, the CRUCh approved a ranking percentage of 10% at all universities and for each of the programs, giving the liberty to grant this percentage to high school grades (NEM) or to the PSU tests in language and mathematics, maintaining the previously defined minimum percentage. We need to take an in-depth look at the results of this measure and use them to determine how to move forward in this matter. What will probably happen is that during the next few months the CRUCh will define a range of application for the ranking, and it will decide if it is of free application within the programs of study, maintaining the defined range of minimum and maximum percentages. That is what is happening today in the weighting of grades and the different PSU tests.
What other measures are complementary or necessary in order to continue advancing in terms of the equality of the university selection processes in Chile?
It is very important to be able to improve university access in terms of quality and equality. For this, we need a new authority to perform an in-depth analysis of the advantages of the present system, to look critically at the changes that need to be made and to define the incorporation of new instruments within the selection process. This new authority must consist of an entity made up of experts who are exclusively dedicated to this nationwide task. Soon we will have the PSU evaluation report, prepared by an international agency, and we will need to analyze its conclusions. New instruments such as the incorporation of a written essay, considering students’ abilities (leadership skills, extracurricular activities, etc.), are areas where we need to have a greater body of knowledge in order to make mature and informed decisions. This issue is of great importance to the country.
The ranking seeks to benefit the top 10% of students at each educational establishment, considering the three years prior to each selection process. What support do these students receive once they enter the university?
Yes, the incorporation of the ranking will increase the number of students belonging to the top 10% of each of their educational establishments, and that is what we have seen at the UC. It is important to consider the last three years, since we do not want there to be an internal competition that affects the educational climate, but we do want to send a message that it is very important to study and make an effort during primary and secondary school. This is going to be a very clear and powerful message to students to improve their performance in school. That said, these changes represent an opportunity and a responsibility for all universities. At the UC, we provide special academic support for vulnerable students, especially those from the first three quintiles, in order to ensure adequate performance from the beginning of the year. We know that the risk factors for desertion and academic failure include the student’s socioeconomic situation, vocational problems and academic skills. We need to broaden our academic support and provide greater resources for this important project.
What contribution is made by the students who enter the university through this route?
The grade ranking allows the best students to be able to access the UC, and therefore we have seen that it benefits everyone, but a significant number of vulnerable students have varying degrees of financial aid to enter the UC. With this percentage, we think that between 1-2% more first-year students will come from public and subsidized schools. These students are added to those that enter the university through the new inclusion programs described above. Their contribution to diversity is very significant, and we think both the students who obtain access to a quality university education and their classmates will make great contributions and receive great benefits. Peer contribution in education is very important and widely recognized. Quality universities depend on good professors and good students, and if these come from different cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds, the quality and diversity of the educational project are increased, therefore improving the diversity, pluralism and quality of a university.
At the end of the month, the UNESCO Program on Inclusion in Higher Education and the UNESCO Office in Santiago will recognize you for your support of measures that favor the equality of university education. What does this mean for you?
This recognition gives prestige to the UC and its policies of inclusion. I receive it with honor and joy on behalf of the directors, professors and students that have supported projects and initiatives in this area. We are working hard to build a UC which is connected to the problems of the country, contributing solutions and demonstrating our commitment from our own identity as a Catholic university. I would especially like to recognize Professor Francisco Javier Gil, the advisor for the UC’s policies of inclusion, for the rigorous, constant and hard work that he has done on this matter for over 20 years. He has been key to the implementation of these policies within the country.
During 2012, student movements and problems with accreditation processes brought the need for greater equality and quality to the national agenda. What issues would you like to see highlighted in 2013?
I think the 2013 issues should be centered on a clear definition of the meaning of education and the transformation and growth process of our students. In particular, we need to improve the quality of the higher education system, improve access in terms of equality and quality and define criteria to regulate and supervise this system so that any progress made in terms of quality is sustainable over time. On the other hand, the development of research and the generation of new knowledge in all areas are issues of increasing relevance for the country, which require a strong state and private sector commitment to the universities. We must confront these issues alongside the students and the Ministry of Education, since it is a task for everyone, and the benefits will be a direct contribution to the development of our students, their families and Chilean society in general.
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