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The Chilean higher education system has proven to be a failure in at least two senses. On the one hand, extreme inequalities have run unchecked since the inception in 1982 of a subsidiary system of financing and the creation of private universities by the legal body that regulates the higher educational system. On the other hand, universities have proven incapable of conferring degrees based on an integrated approach to professional training. An aerial view of central-south Chile, for example, shows massive deforestation that correlates with growing numbers of forestry engineers. Failures in development plans, large investment projects, and approaches to social problems prove that the higher education system is not providing the kind of "human capital" that the country needs.

Equity and quality are slippery words in the official rhetoric about the challenges of the new millennium. Under the surface, students and academicians experience a bitter situation in national, regional, private, and public universities. Along-standing sense of inadequacy, as suggested by the authors of this article in 2006, evolved into a massive mobilization of university students in 2011. The honors program, as its mission states, was designed to help incoming students within a system that was not prepared to integrate their studies with the realities of society: to integrate them into a meaningful course of study and to integrate academic pursuits with addressing problems of human and environmental development.

The aims of the honors program of the Universidad Austral de Chile were an early reaction to a complex problem. No one could require a small program based in a regional university to solve social and educational problems of a structural nature. However, a decade later, the program has shown its ability to create an academic space where major challenges are addressed and, on a tiny scale, solved. In searching for a proper equation between quality and equity, the program's ingredients have been crucial. These ingredients include a transdisciplinary concept, an understanding of a humanly constituted environment, and an immediate connection to the larger social arena where it is placed.

A decade of honors in the UACh provides some hints about possible solutions to great issues. Inspired by honors programs in the U.S., the Chilean experience builds upon the notion of enhanced learning; faced with a non-challenging academic environment, the program was and still is intended to stimulate students from different fields of knowledge and to expand their curiosity by sharing a learning space beyond the narrow boundaries of their disciplines. This model is quite different from the common practice of having honors segments within classes and cohorts, an approach that would be risky in an academic context where social tensions are part of its foundations. A tacit assumption of the program has been that disparate social backgrounds create a learning environment that is sensitive to the needs of the more socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Presented in a traditional format, the honors program could aggravate the unequal ground upon which students' academic careers are played out. Instead, the honors program provides a space where students who have had little or no previous interactions with each other can share bonding experiences as they search for solutions posed by the questions raised in honors classes.

A main avenue for the university to provide a learning environment with the features of an honors program was in those areas where its academic strength was greatest. Thus environmental studies arose as a clear option for confluence between the academic strength of the university and the motivations of large segments of the student body.

Three main features of the Chilean honors program became established during its first years: an extra-departmental academic unit integrating students and faculty from diverse provenances; a transdisciplinary project in environmental studies; and a process for selecting student participants that was not strictly based on academic performance. A general criterion for recruitment was selection of at least one student from each department; the student was interviewed by a selection committee, made up of faculty and former students, who put significant weight on motivation in their considerations. Issues of gender and social background were part of the focus in the recruitment process, but no formal criteria of this kind were established in the selection process.

The first three years of the program developed an academic process where the classroom and some outdoor experiences were the basis for learning. Based on honors programs at other universities, the classes focused on problems and questions--about water, for instance--and not on solutions. Presenting alternative views to explain a given reality was an essential part of the educational process, and the search for a feasible new solution to given problems was considered a requirement for each class.

Something was missing, however, in the context of Latin America, where environmental problems are deeply felt as part of an unequally built society. On the one hand, the underprivileged classes--peasants, fishermen, indigenous communities, countryside workers, and urban poor--experience a gross overexposure to environmental risks, and on the other hand is the destruction of nature. In this context, the learning process demanded a link to the community and its environment as part of the honors project. Community learning and integration of local knowledge thus became another ingredient of the Chilean honors program.

How far the program has arrived is a hard question to answer. The structure of Chilean universities, based on a strict neoliberal program, allows little, if any, space for extra-budgetary initiatives, and the notion of excellence that is publicly proclaimed in terms of retention and graduation rates has little to do with the contents of the educational process. Although there is institutional recognition of the importance of honors education, such recognition does not translate into a significant investment. After a decade of honors in the Universidad Austral de Chile, the program is still a volunteer effort of a group of faculty that aims for an alternative way of engaging the educational process with both scholarly and social dimensions. However, the program has, against the odds, prevailed in the university system, being recognized as the most innovative experience in the area. As a result, the honors program has been replicated over the years in the School of Medicine, with the specific purpose of developing research skills among medical doctors, and in the area of agronomy, veterinary science, and forestry in the context of an exchange program with Virginia Tech University.

An important indicator of the social, cultural, and educational appropriateness of the honors program for Latin American societies is the fact that, in Brazil, a couple of relevant experiences have been created based on the Chilean honors program. One of them took place at the Universidad Federal de Parana, where the program was offered for high school students from rural areas aiming at their inclusion in a socially committed higher education system.

A major issue in the Chilean honors experience is how we should understand the success of such an academic initiative. Excellence in this context is not a technical term but a rather a socioenvironmental and scientific theme that can only be measured in terms of the program's impact on the local situation in which it aims to intervene. The importance of the Chilean honors program is not in the successful reproduction of a given model but rather in its recreation in contexts where it can contribute to an alternative educational project.

One significant change in the decade after the pilot experience in honors program took place in Chile is the increased awareness of services that are deeply needed by the higher education system in a country that is so divided by social inequalities. Excellence is a convenient concept for the promotion of institutions that aim to find a niche in the market but is far removed from the social reality that it needs to serve.

A new ingredient has arisen in the conversation that now takes place among faculty, students, and community leaders, providing a new twist that redefines the scope of the program. The transition, however, is uneasy. Scientists, for the most, prefer to work alone in the solitude of their laboratories. We are used to measuring academic skills in terms of knowledge and careers but typically pay little attention to the context where such skills are deployed. Depletion of the once green mountains calls for a renewal in educational processes, and so does the persistent gap between the haves and the have-nots. While the Chilean honors program suggests some concrete ways of improving higher education in Chile while also addressing some of these issues, we may need to wait until the tide of current social unrest allows transformation of protests into proposals for generalizing this kind of learning.


Downie, A. 2011. In Chile, Students' Anger at Tuition Debt Fuels Protests and a National Debate. Chronicle of Higher Education, 58(9), A28-A30.

Henriquez, C. 2012. Da critica para as ideias e das ideias para a pratica: a experiencia formativa do programa de honra em Economia Solidaria, Meio Ambiente e Desenvolvimento de base local da UFPR. In: Anais. III CEPIAL. Congresso Da Cultura e Educacao para a Integracao de America Latina. Educacao Para O Desenvolvimento Latino-Americano: Suas Multiplas Faces. Curitiba, Brasil.

Weinstein, J. 2011. More equity in education: The Chilean students' public outcry. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(3), 76-77.

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Title Annotation:Honors in Chile; Universidad Austral de Chile
Publication:Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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