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Home » Cultural Geography, Economic Geography, Education, Latin America

Chile: Inequality, Education, and Geography

Submitted by on July 22, 2015 – 6:29 pm 5 Comments |  
As noted in the previous post, Chile has a strikingly high level of income inequality despite its considerable success in social and economic development. Many observers blame Chile’s educational system for such inequity, contending that the country has many poor schools and does not spend enough money on education. As argued in a recent Council on Hemispheric Affairs article, “National and international advocates for education reform agree that Chile must significantly increase its expenditures on education to provide quality institutions and reduce inequality.” A post in an on-line publication called The Richest fleshes out this argument:

With a Gini coefficient of 0.501, Chile tops our list of countries with the most serious problem of inequality. Several factors contribute to this problem, including issues with higher education. While this has improved in recent years – many more Chileans are getting a college degree than before – most of those who land graduate jobs come from the richest schools in the country. Many of the poor go to cheaper colleges, hoping that they’ll still have the same opportunities as other graduates – only to leave college with mounting student loan debt and jobs that pay scarcely enough to cover those debts. There are several bills on the table to help improve the education system, but many of them aren’t moving very fast due to wealthy universities lobbying against them.


Chile has increased its educational expenditures in recent years. In 2008 (the most recent year of data availability), it devoted 4.0 percent of its GDP to education, up from 3.2 in 2006. 4.0 percent is not a particularly high number, but it is not too far below those of such educationally advanced countries as Germany (4.5%) and Australia (also 4.5%), and it exceeds that of Japan (3.5%). Those countries, however, are much richer than Chile and thus have much more to spend at the same GDP percentage level. But it is not merely how much money is spent that counts. Many critics on the left fault Chile’s decentralized and partly privatized educational system, claiming that it mainly benefits the well-off and does little to help the poor. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet evidently agrees. As the abstract of a 2015 Pepperdine Review article by Vannia Zelaya puts it:

This paper looks into Chile’s educational system and the recent policy reforms that President Michelle Bachelet seeks to establish. More specifically, this paper explores the “Proyecto de Ley de Fin al Lucro, la Selección y el Copago,” which aims to eliminate private for-profit institutions within the public system, admission selectivity, and mandatory copay fees. With this, Bachelet’s administration and the Ministry of Education intend to end the inequality of access to education, which is part of Chile’s broader problem of great socioeconomic inequality. This particular policy is part of Bachelet’s comprehensive educational system reform, and it brings Chile’s voucher system into debate. The voucher system is explored to determine whether Chile is able to improve its situation by maintaining a privatized and decentralized system, or if it should move towards a fully public and centralized system as directed by Bachelet.

Regardless of such debates, official data indicate that Chile has done a relatively good job of providing basic education, coming close to achieving full literacy. In terms of net secondary school enrollment, however, Chile’s official figures are somewhat low, as can be seen in the map posted below. But 2013 World Bank data on the same indicator (which are measured somewhat differently from those used to make the map) place Chile at a substantially higher level, exceeding that of Australia (87% for Chile vs. 86% for Australia), although lagging behind most European countries. Chile’s levels of attendance in tertiary education, on the other hand, are quite high. Indeed, according to World Bank data on gross (rather than net) tertiary school enrollment, Chile has one of the top figures in the world, exceeding even that of Norway and well ahead of those of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. But as the quotations given earlier in this post indicate, not all Chilean colleges and universities provide high quality education.


Chile literacy mapLevels of education, of course, vary from one Chilean region to another. To see how they these patterns are geographically structured, I have mapped several educational indicators, again using data provided in the Wikipedia article on Ranked Lists of Chilean Regions. As can be seen, the disparities between regions Chile mean years of schooling mapare not particularly pronounced. Metropolitan Santiago scores high, as do the wealthier mining regions of the north and the highly developed region of Magallanes in the far south. The generally well-off region of Aysén* just to the north of Magallanes, however, does not rank as high as might be expected. Other oddities are the elevated figures for secondary and tertiary enrollment in certain mid-level and relatively poor regions, such as Arica Chile secondary education mapand Parinacota and Araucanía.

Chile Tertiary education map*Aysén is an interesting region, and I hope to devote an entire post to it in the near future.



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  • Gilbert_Reeser

    Whenever I read about income inequality my political antenna goes up. Gini coefficient has been challenged by others more competent than me. It does show something but I am not sure what. I last visited Chile in 2012 (Punta Arenas, Santiago, Coquimbo and Valparaiso and La Serena) and was astonished with the cleanliness and economic activity Admittedly it was a tour of the nicer places but in comparison to other countries of the Americas it was a joy. Please do not take this as a criticism of your article. I enjoy all that you write.

    • Thanks for the comments. I agree that the GINI coefficient is far from an ideal measurement. I also suspect that the data used to calculate it in many countries is simply inadequate to the task. I should have mentioned this in the post. But I have to use the data that is available. I also agree that Chile is a highly successful country overall.

      • Sabe_Moya

        Inequality is the notion that if you do not have as much cocaine as your neighbour, there is something fundamentally wrong with the nation’s economic scheme.

      • Mark Brophy

        If Bill Gates comes to your town and invests a billion dollars, inequality will increase. Nevertheless, politicians and other civic boosters try to recruit rich investors. Singapore has been especially successful, has high inequality, and has improved from a Third World country to a First World country in 50 years. Inequality is a problem only when the rich receive their money by using the political system to rob the citizens, a topic you didn’t address in your article.

  • Bacchus Eddy

    When I read articles about the inequality of education or healthcare, it assumes that the systems of education or healthcare are actual systems that educate properly or heal people. They are not. Our health care systems are not about health, but about systematic and reductionist disease management and fostering chronic conditions with their lifelong pharmaceuticals. Similarly, at a primary and secondary level, western educational systems are about compliance to authority, ease with factory/office working conditions and adherence corporate agendas. They are not about cultivating curiosity, mindfulness or even critical thinking.

    Articles such as these should not look in the past at antiquated systems that do not work. Even the “rich schools” of Chile are behind the times and staffed by teachers that know little of the real world. Students coming out of these institutions are not very prepared for the world at large. I should know – I am affiliated with IBM Global and we see a paucity of Chileans in our upper ranks. So what good would that do for the poor population to access that?

    Rather, they should look to solutions that will work for the future. This article should be about the inequality of access to information. With the advent of the Internet, the need for secondary, tertiary and graduate level education diminishes, as information can be received on demand via a pc or phone, rather than by access to exclusive centralized locations. Gone are the times where information is locked away exclusively inside cloistered libraries of books and the hands on experience of subject matter experts. Thankfully, Google and YouTube has changed all of that. Forums such as these are a good example of information exchange.

    President Bachelet should do better to address the underlying data infrastructure of Chile in order to facilitate information access for all citizens. As Chileans all know, half the country (the southern half) is not even accessible by continuous roads. These are disparate islands of information, waiting to share their indigenous knowledge to the world. It would be much more cost effective to bring the servers of information to the people rather than bringing the people to the antiquated and poorly staffed information centers.

    Monies spent building a state of the art fiber optic network and point to point WANs that facilitate high speed information access across the country is what is needed. Ask any teen in Chile what they want most – inexpensive cell phone and reliable Internet access (try getting high-speed data access south of Chiloe Island or in the Altacama). Once accomplished, teens will naturally educate themselves. No system needed. The new system will grow organically from the people who will reinvent it, given the proper infrastructure. Chileans are quite creative, intelligent, hard working, persistent and proud of their heritage. They are not afraid to stand up to oppressive regimes and will sacrifice gladly to create a better life for their children. More than any other country, this country does not need to be given a solution, they can craft one from the limitless depths of their own imaginations. Just give them the base communications platform to do it with.

    Good article, however. Thank you for all your contributions. I enjoy them.