Student protesters march on to root out Chile's false profits

Movement demands increase in low levels of state investment in the academy. Paul Jump reports

October 27, 2011

Credit: Getty
Red flag: officials from the government have claimed that the student movement has been hijacked by the extreme Left while protesters have complained of police heavy-handedness greeting their demonstrations

"We want to improve the educational system, but not this one. We must move towards a more inclusive, truly diverse, democratic and just system that has a vision of the development of the country at its heart. It cannot be governed by the profit motive."

So declared the leader of the Chilean student movement, 23-year-old Camila Vallejo, a geography postgraduate at the University of Chile, in August.

At the time, the country was already three months into a wave of mass protests against its highly privatised education system. Now into their sixth month, the demonstrations and agitation show little sign of abating.

The first protesters were high school students, who objected to the poor quality of the private secondary schools that 55 per cent of them are obliged to attend because of a lack of state provision. But university students were quick to join and assume leadership of the movement.

Unlike schools, Chilean universities are legally obliged to be non-profit. But the students allege that both the framing and the enforcement of the law lack rigour.

According to Andrew Chadwick, country manager of the British Council in Chile, it is "widely acknowledged" that private university authorities can personally profit by directing their institutions to pay over the odds for services or rent to companies they themselves own.

But the core of the students' complaints relates to Chile's extremely low levels of public spending on higher education - one of the lowest of all members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. That translates into some of the highest student fees in the world.

As Times Higher Education reported in May, students at Chilean public universities are able to take out government-funded "solidarity loans" at relatively favourable terms.

But the four out of five students who attend private universities - most of whom hail from poorer backgrounds - are offered only bank-administered loans with commercial rates of interest (currently about 5.5 per cent). Students must begin repaying them as soon as they graduate.

Chadwick adds that the protesters are also angry about the government's failure to ensure the quality of universities and technical colleges.

He says that those who have suffered most from this oversight are typically the 60 to 70 per cent of Chilean students who are the first in their families to attend university, many of whom have a "low consumer understanding of higher education" and have either been unable to verify their courses' accreditation or are unaware that this is even an issue.

The rectors of the private universities have generally kept their counsel during the protests. But the leaders of the public universities have been agitating for some time for increased public investment - which currently accounts for just 20 per cent of their institutions' budgets.

Hence, they were happy in the early days of the protests to sign a joint list of demands with the student leaders - even as 12 of Chile's 22 state universities, plus hundreds of municipal secondary schools, went on strike.

However, the rectors stopped short of endorsing the students' demands for a complete end to education on a for-profit basis and to the charging of student fees.

Such demands have received short shrift from the country's right-wing president, Sebastian Pinera. However, faced with overwhelming public support for the protests, culminating in the largest demonstrations since Chile returned to democracy in 1990, Pinera has offered several olive branches. These include tighter accreditation, more bursaries for poor students, a commission to examine higher education funding and the same 2 per cent interest rates for all student loans.

'Sophisticated support' solution

Jose Joaquin Brunner, director of the Centre for Comparative Education Policies at the private Diego Portales University, notes that most countries have concluded that charging student fees is the only way to fund a high-quality mass higher education system.

For him, the solution is "a more sophisticated" support scheme for poorer students: "scholarships for students from the (lowest) two income quintiles, a mixture of scholarships and loans for the third quintile and a loans-only scheme for the two remaining quintiles if students cannot pay the fees".

But the students do not appear ready to accept such a compromise - not least, according to Matias Marambio, a graduate student at the University of Chile, because the president's bargaining position is weakened by his popularity rating of 22 per cent, an all-time low.

Chadwick believes that much will depend on the student movement's ability to maintain public support amid an increasingly antagonistic and fractious atmosphere.

"A month ago the talk was more constructive, but positions have become radicalised and the two sides are trading insults," he says.

The students complain of heavy-handed police tactics amid government attempts to criminalise the protests, while the government claims that the student movement has been hijacked by the extreme Left.

"Around 70 per cent of the public still have sympathy with the student demands, but they don't agree with their tactics," Chadwick says. "They are seeing more violence in the streets and damage to public property. The question is whether the student movement can control its violent fringe."

Rectors also appear to be growing weary of the protests. According to Andres Bernasconi Ramirez, academic vice-rector of Andres Bello University, one of Chile's largest private institutions, the country's Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities has called on students to resume classes, with at least three university leaders having authorised the police to clear occupied buildings by force.

"The rectors say the students should continue their mobilisation through other means, including perhaps 'protected days', in which they will be allowed to demonstrate without missing classes and evaluations," he says.

Academic reckoning

Some students have also voted to end their strikes, and Bernasconi's sense is that the leaders of the student movement - who were in Europe last week seeking support from bodies such as the European Students' Union and the OECD - are "grudgingly" prepared to countenance a return to classes.

"They seem to have accepted that losing the first and second term (of the university year) is too high a cost for the students and a drag in their overall support," he says.

Chadwick agrees that there will be a "reckoning" when the university year ends in mid-December.

"Student credits are tied to completing courses," he says. "If there are no credits, the university doesn't get paid and the students have to do the course again at their own cost.

"The students are hoping for a negotiated exemption."

He thinks wider questions are raised by the protests, some similar to those posed in relation to the rise in English tuition fees. For instance, does the length of Chilean degrees - which can last for five or six years - need to be cut? And does the country really need a large proportion of its population to have degrees when a higher-quality vocational educational system might create more job opportunities?

Chadwick does not believe that the students will get the "paradigm shift" they are looking for. Nor is he clear whether the vigour of the protests will survive the three-month summer vacation.

But he adds: "Education was never the number one domestic priority for this government when it came into power. But it has become that now without a shadow of doubt."

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