Pedro Castillo announced that, during a possible government of his, the entrance to the universities of the country would be free. This proposal has ignited the debate on the relevance of this measure, as some consider that the admission exam does not adequately assess students’ abilities, while others believe that it allows them to remain competitive. Juan Antonio Trelles, expert in public policy and educational regulation, and the sociologist Luciana Reátegui analyze it.
Free income: the false achievement
“An indiscriminate and free entry will not be sustainable neither financially nor academically.”
The current debate regarding the pending educational agenda has incorporated free admission to public universities as a measure that seems to attempt equity and universality in access. From this point – without clear arguments – a position is established based on the legitimate aspirations of young people, without evaluating the relevance or usefulness of the exam in the university training process. In the following lines I will try to synthesize the main arguments that support the importance and necessity of these exams in general and, specifically, in the public university, when I refer to it.
Let’s start by asking ourselves why is it important to evaluate before entering university? In the first place, because it is vital to identify in the applicant the skills and prior knowledge that they will need based on the graduation profile of each career at each university. This measure is a variable that has a high incidence on the permanence and success of the student to become a professional.
Second, and specifically in cases like that of the education system In Peru, the entrance exam provides, through its results, indicators regarding the improvement or deterioration of learning in basic education. This allows not only the identification of gaps in this process, but also in the change of the contents to be evaluated in each admission and, of course, the adaptation of the study programs, especially in General Studies, to reverse the differences and level students. , compensating for the weaknesses of our educational system.
In line with the above, an entrance exam is necessary because universities do not have the guarantee that the educational system, at its basic level, has effectively achieved the learning achievements necessary for each student to join higher education. In this way, a disparate and heterogeneous basic education, based on the fulfillment of results and with few criteria and standardized quality indicators, contributes even more to the need to maintain the exam.
Efforts to bypass the individual admissions processes at each university in exchange for a single, large national exit exam for basic education or entry to higher education have failed. In this context, there is no educational policy tool that is relevant to replace what our university system proposes today.
Now, with respect to public universities, it should be added that an indiscriminate and free admission will not be sustainable either financially or academically, since each vacancy costs and the Basic Quality Conditions required by licensing would make the immediate application of this measure impossible if it were sees the current capacity of students in the public system surpassed.
A measure like this could not only contravene the academic autonomy with respect to the knowledge that each university can demand, but also affect the national budget, selectivity as a quality criterion and the reasonableness of educational policy. We would be, once again, before a mistake that is fixed as a result of the beginning and not the end of a process. A false achievement.
Education as a right and not a privilege
“Restricting income does not necessarily translate into higher educational quality.”
The candidate of Free Peru, Pedro Castillo, proposes to authorize free admission to universities. Although the implementation of unrestricted entry – free or automatic – in higher education is not a new topic and it should not be surprising that it appears as an electoral proposal, this idea has resonated with great resounding in certain sectors of the population.
The debate on unrestricted admission to university is situated in a classic educational antagonism between equity or quality, or between education as a right or education as a privilege. The views in favor of the entrance exams argue that the selection processes promote academic excellence and reward student merit. Under this logic, it is assumed that students face the admission exam under equal conditions and that, as a result of individual effort, they manage to access university.
This premise, however, is not entirely true. It is not news that in Peru and the region, young people from disadvantaged social classes face greater barriers to access and academic success, which is manifested in the under-representation of these students in the university system. In Peru, according to a Senaju report published in 2019, the university level is reached only by 9% of young people living in poverty and by 7% of young people living in rural areas.
As different investigations indicate, students face challenges and have extremely unequal supports in their journey to higher education. Among them, for example, the possibility of accessing a leveling process through a pre-university academy or having study spaces, books and time for reading in their homes.
On the other hand, Peru is a good example that entrance exams do not guarantee academic excellence. In fact, all of our universities have admissions processes and their quality is not evident for this reason. In contrast, the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), which has free admission, is one of the best-positioned universities in the international rankings of the region. In other words, restricting income does not necessarily translate into higher educational quality.
However, in Argentina, many studies also indicate that unrestricted entry has not led to a democratization of the higher education system. Many students, especially those from the less favored strata, end up dropping out of college in the first year. This is mainly due to the difficulties they face in adapting to the university system and the resources they have to maintain the pace demanded by the university, which is often combined with paid or unpaid care work; the latter especially in the case of women.
In this sense, while simply implementing unrestricted income is not the antidote to reverse inequality, putting this issue on the agenda is necessary to think about how to restructure a higher education system that currently restricts – and excludes – access to many motivated young people to pursue higher studies, and that they could find a space for it in the university.