In the spring of 2011, Chilean students began a wave of mass protests against the South American country’s heavily privatised and high-cost higher education system.
Demonstrations soon turned to violence and tear gas flooded the streets of Santiago. Amid anger over the heavy debts racked up by the poorest students, many of whom attend low-quality private universities, the protest movement captured the mood of a nation in which social inequality seemed pervasive.
Over months of strikes, occupations and marches by a broad coalition of university students, schoolchildren and trades unions, the movement built support among the public and helped to make popularity ratings for President Sebastián Piñera, head of the right-wing National Renewal Party, the worst for a Chilean leader in the post-dictatorship era.
A raft of policy decisions announced by the government failed to placate demonstrators, and the escalating crisis led to the resignation of two education ministers.
The government’s latest policies, announced in April, promise an extra $1 billion (£639 million) for education spending, including a boost in scholarships and a revamped student loan system, but the demonstrations have continued. In June 50,000 protesters took to the streets for the biggest march in seven months, and in August smaller marches led to the return of violence and riot police.
According to Andres Fielbaum, a mathematical engineering student at the University of Chile and communication secretary of the University of Chile Students’ Federation, the government’s reforms fail to deal with students’ fundamental demands: free education and the abolition of for-profit education.
“The government gave us answers that begin to address issues raised by the student movement. But we’ve now had three ministers and many answers, and all are simply following their agenda, which is fundamentally in favour of a market for education,” he says.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says that Chile has the most privatised education system in the world, with more than 85 per cent of higher education funding coming from private sources - mostly from students and their families.
“Private education has been a disaster in Chile. The higher education system is very important for building the country’s future…The majority of universities that are run like a business end up as very low-quality institutions, leaving students very disaffected,” says Fielbaum.
Private universities proliferated in the 1980s under the military junta led by Augusto Pinochet, when public education was discouraged. But the return of democracy in 1990 did little to redress the balance.
Tuition fees grew by an average of about 3 per cent each year in real terms. In 2006, this prompted Michelle Bachelet’s left-wing government to introduce a state-guaranteed bank loan scheme.
But the system served only to saddle students with huge debts of up to $40,000, and until recently some were struggling with monthly repayments of 20 to 30 per cent of their income. In an economy growing at a rate of 6 per cent, many wondered why students were still getting such short shrift.
“In Chile, the average monthly cost of university study is around $500, and this year the minimum wage went up to $400 a month, so there is no relation between the cost of university and the economic reality of this country,” says Fielbaum.
As an undergraduate at one of Chile’s two major national public universities, Loreto Fernández, who is studying education at the University of Chile in Santiago, says her position is better than most.
She pays the 220,000 pesos (£290) a month for her course with state loans, and predicts that she will graduate with a debt of about 8 million pesos (£10,700). Under the new scheme introduced this year, her interest has been reduced from 6 to 2 per cent and repayments will not exceed 10 per cent of her wages.
But the loan does not cover an annual matriculation fee or the interest she has already started to pay on her debts, and the total sum to pay remains high relative to Chile’s per capita gross domestic product. “In fact the amount my degree costs [per year] is more or less the wage I’ll be on when I start working as a teacher,” says Fernández.
Despite continuing criticisms, Chile’s third education minister in less than a year, Harald Beyer, says he is confident that the reforms announced in April will finally make a difference.
An academic until his recruitment by the ruling party in December, Beyer has little political experience but is an expert in economics and higher education policy, and he has found an automatic rapport with university leaders, many of whom have so far backed the protests.
After obtaining a doctorate in economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, he moved to a Santiago-based thinktank, the Centre for Public Studies, and served on several government panels, including an influential presidential advisory council on pension reform in 2006, during the Bachelet administration. He also coordinated Piñera’s education programme before becoming minister.
Beyer’s plan involves giving access to state loans to all bar the richest 10 per cent of students. At the other end of the scale, the poorest 60 per cent of students will also be able to access scholarships paid for out of the $1 billion increase in education funding, which will be made available via tax reform.
“In 2009 we had 118,000 scholarships for students. At the end of this government we will have 400,000,” he told Times Higher Education.
Under a bill that became law in June, the poorest 40 per cent of students will no longer have to fund the gap between the so-called reference fee, on which government loans are based, and the final cost of university, which is often considerably higher. In future the same students will also be accepted into higher education with lower scores than those achieved by other students in the national university selection exam.
Beyer claims that the government had foreseen the problems of escalating fees and loans and the proliferation of poor-quality courses and was drafting solutions even before its hand was forced.
“In 1990, once democracy came back, we had 240,000 students in higher education. This year we will have almost 1.1 million, from a population of 17 million. People had a lot of expectations about higher education, and some people haven’t been able to fulfil those expectations because not all our programmes are very good,” he acknowledges.
In 2010, its first year in office, the National Renewal Party began by targeting primary and secondary education, Beyer says, and it came to higher education too late.
“We must now, to some extent, go at a slower pace and look again at our programmes, increase our regulation and quality assurance. We have [a quality assurance system], but it has a lot of problems. I think we have to change financing…and get better balance in our regulation.”
A hot topic in the country is the issue of whether Chile’s private institutions - which educate more than 80 per cent of higher education students - are working for the benefit of students.
For-profit education has a long heritage in Chile. It is the norm at primary and secondary level, with about 50 per cent of students attending government-subsidised private schools, but for-profit higher education technically remains illegal under Chilean law.
Earlier this year, however, the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education, an official body made up of members of Chile’s legislature, presented a report that denounced seven private universities as profiting from education through high salaries for senior staff, the sale of education institutions, outsourcing and tax avoidance.
“After analysing all the facts, reviews of the statements and reports seen by this Commission of Inquiry, it is concluded that not only is there profit in higher education, but also [that] the whole regulatory framework governing the higher education system, especially regarding full implementation of the requirement in the law with respect to profit, does not work,” the report says.
Although Congress narrowly rejected the report in a vote last month, much to the dismay of the student movement, members of the inquiry have vowed to continue to fight for the issue to be addressed.
One of the seven institutions accused of profiting from higher education, the University for Arts, Sciences and Communications, owned by the for-profit education firm Apollo Global, has since had its accreditation rescinded by Chile’s National Accreditation Commission because of uncertainty over its long-term sustainability and quality assurance. The withdrawal of accreditation means that its students will no longer be eligible to receive state-backed student loans. Experts suggest that other institutions may face a similar fate.
Beyer says he believes that fixing this key issue will satisfy the student movement, whose momentum, he adds, is faltering.
“I think students are slowly beginning to…concentrate on [the fact] that we have theoretically not-for-profit higher education and arguing that there are a lot of institutions that are not complying with the law. The discussion is moving in that direction now.”
The public, too, may be losing the will to continue the fight for free higher education. “I think people are changing their minds. If you look at the current public opinion polls, in general people are saying they understand that free education has to be only for the poor people, and the others have to pay,” Beyer says.
He adds that the country’s university graduates earn considerably more than peers with only secondary education. In Chile, he says, graduates earn up to four times as much as non-university-educated workers, a far bigger salary differential than exists in Europe. The public increasingly agrees that paying for higher education is fair, he suggests.
“We think this is the right balance [of public versus private funding] now…If you look at the data, nine of every 10 young people coming from the highest 10 per cent of income go to university, compared with only one of every 10 from the lowest. If you’ve got free higher education, more or less 30 per cent of the money will go to the highest 10 per cent while only 3 per cent will go to those in the lowest.”
Pedro Rosso, president of the Organisation of Catholic Universities of Latin America, agrees that the reforms, coupled with the high personal costs to students of maintaining the protest, may be having an effect.
With students occupying universities and institutions extending final semesters due to earlier disruptions, “last year a very high percentage of students didn’t have summer vacations. That’s a heavy toll. I am not sure that many would like to find themselves in the same situation this year.”
Law student Gabriel Boric took over the leadership of the University of Chile Students’ Federation, the most prominent of Chile’s student groups, from the charismatic Camila Vallejo at the end of 2011. Rosso suggests that the new student leadership is deeply divided between moderates and “revolutionaries” who will be content with nothing less than free education for all.
“This is paralysing their capacity to agree on strategies and to negotiate with the government,” Rosso says. Talks between students and ministers are currently at a standstill.
Fielbaum, however, maintains that the student movement as a whole is standing firm in its call for free public education as a right. Although rich students would naturally benefit from free education for all, he argues that a functioning and progressive tax system could take this into account.
“Subjects that are so important for education in Chile need to be based more on democracy. This kind of technocracy in Beyer’s arguments has its foundations in the logic of political hallways. The government position that free education disproportionately benefits the rich is a fallacy…Real reform would be to implement full tax reform.”
University of Chile in Santiago student Fernandez is rather more positive about government reforms so far. She would like to see more funding go directly to Chilean universities and their students through scholarships, rather than adaptations to the loan system, but she can see change on the horizon.
“In universities there’s a big resistance to change but it seems like, at the same time, issues are finally being raised that have needed to be dealt with for a long time.”
What’s more, students will not quickly forget the power they wielded in holding the government to account, she says.
“There’s a unity between high school and university students that wasn’t there before, so I feel like we have more possibilities. I don’t know how much things will improve in the short term, but I feel like we’re beginning to making some steps in the right direction.”