As the rector of the University of Chile, the South American country’s oldest higher education institution, Ennio Vivaldi is no stranger to student protests. But the wave of demonstrations that has swept the country this year, which started on his own Santiago campus, inspired by the global #MeToo movement, is unlike anything that has been seen before.
Thousands of students and staff took to the streets earlier this year protesting against sexual harassment and assault in Chilean universities, and complaining that rectors were not taking the issue seriously.
The movement started with an occupation by students from the University of Chile’s School of Law in April and, by the mid-May, more than 30 institutions were said to be affected by the “Feminist Takes” movement, putting pressure on university leaders to acknowledge the issue of gender violence and to review course curricula for a fairer representation of women and minorities across history.
Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of his re-election as president of Chile’s lobby group for state-funded universities, Professor Vivaldi said that, far from being upset at the disruption, he was “completely understanding and supportive” of the protesters’ cause. More than that, he was actively encouraging “some productive rebellion”.
According to the University of Chile, 15 per cent of students report that they have been subjected to sexual violence during their time at the institution, but students say that the number of unreported incidents is likely to be much higher.
“The protests we have seen go beyond the typical student movements and I have to say that what they are doing is very, very important,” Professor Vivaldi said. “As usual, [the campaigners] have taken over some departments – teachers don’t like that – but in this case I think that it’s the first time that I have seen such a concordance between the teachers and the professors and the overall goal [of the protests].”
Underlying the issue of sexual harassment in academia is the continuing under-representation of women in senior positions in academia around the world. Professor Vivaldi acknowledged that his own institution had more work to do in this area: while just under 40 per cent of assistant professors at the University of Chile are women, they account for only 16 per cent of full professors.
One way to tackle this, Professor Vivaldi suggested, would be to enforce a law requiring all state and private universities, where possible, to employ a quota of female professionals.
“In our university, we are taking measures in that respect, especially in [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers,” he said. “We are particularly concerned about female academics’ development, to ensure not only that women can enter academia but that they can promptly advance in it.”
If the University of Chile were able to introduce such a policy, it is hoped that others may follow, whether the rule becomes law or not. “I’m certain that the advances in the gender equality agenda will bring about a better society for us all,” Professor Vivaldi said, and this includes a crackdown on the tolerance of abusive behaviour.
“Many universities have provided excellent examples on structural mechanisms to tackle sexual harassment,” he said. “Prevention, victim protection and quick response are some of the many issues that we are improving to ease any violence towards women.”
Another issue high on Professor Vivaldi’s agenda is improving access to education in a country with an especially large social mobility gap.
Chile is renowned for its gratuidad scheme, developed under the government of Michelle Bachelet to offer free tuition to lower-income students. The system was expanded recently to cover students from the poorest 60 per cent of families – up from 50 per cent – and the new government of Sebastián Piñera has nodded towards implementing universal free tuition across the country.
But a study published earlier this year raised concerns about the effectiveness of the gratuidad policy, highlighting that it had left universities underfunded.
“The problem with gratuidad is that they launched it thinking only of the good quality universities that you can trust,” explained Professor Vivaldi. Instead, vulnerable teenagers are being drawn into enrolling with private higher education providers of mixed quality.
“By stating that you are defending the equal right of every young person to go to university, actually what you are doing is you are allowing anybody to do business with those people and get money through them. From a purely economic point of view, it is impossible to understand.”
The solution, Professor Vivaldi said, would be to put gratuidad funding towards improving resources for state education at all levels, helping graduates to leave university with transferable skills and job prospects.
“Politicians today are used to seeing people as stakeholders, looking out for their own interest,” he said. “But we [state universities] are reliable and can be trusted. We are perceived well in this financial climate, so hopefully this is an indicator of good things to come.”