Loan refusal sparks hunger strikes

July 21, 2000

Five students are on hunger strike at the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences in Santiago, as part of a widespread protest against the Chilean government's refusal to extend student credit facilities.

The credit scheme is open to just 25 of Chile's 250 university and higher education institutes. Government officials were meeting the national council of rectors this week to consider action.

The hunger strikers told the daily newspaper El Mercurio that students were suffering considerable hardship because of a lack of funds and that they felt they had been abandoned by both university and government authorities.

Trouble began in May when 450 first-year students at Metropolitan were told that their applications for grant loans had been rejected. Student action has since spread nationally, in many cases bringing teaching to a standstill.

The Metropolitan University of Technology and the Catholic University of Valpara!so have been under siege since mid-June. In Concepci"n, police used teargas to break up violent demonstrations by students from the Catholic University.

The hunger strikers are demanding to meet education minister Mariana Aylwin. But Ms Aylwin said that she had no intention of engaging in talks with students using pressure tactics. She has ruled out additional funding, arguing that this year's credit allocation to universities was 19 per cent higher than last year's.

"The problem is that universities are repaying only 47 per cent of their allocations," Ms Aylwin said. "There are some universities that manage to recoup as little as 10 per cent. This means that they are failing to administer funds properly and to recover outstanding loans that could be used to help incoming students pay for their studies."

The Chilean Federation of University Students said that thousands risked having to give up their studies in their first year and that it was planning a protest march to request a radical reform of the system.

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