Where is higher education in Chile’s dignity revolution?

Fees reform has not quelled popular anger over exploitation, but academics can play a key role in constitutional reform, says Robert Funk

November 20, 2019
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The wave of protest that has engulfed Chile since 18 October came as a surprise to many. After all, this was supposed to be Latin America’s most economically successful and politically stable country, whose democratic transition 30 years ago was a model to be followed.

Chile’s former president, Michelle Bachelet, a symbol of steely determination and forgiveness, today serves as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights. Current president Sebastian Piñera tried to leverage the country’s prestige to lead international efforts to reach a settlement in the Venezuelan crisis, and was preparing to host most of the world at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit and United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25).

But then a 5 cent (0.004 pence) rise in public transport fees prompted millions of people to take to the streets, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. The country seemed suddenly to lose its head. In hindsight, the protest should not have been a surprise, however.

The protesters' demands are many, but can be summed up in one word – “dignity”. And while it is true that the eightfold increase in GDP per capita to US$20,000 since the return to democratic rule has improved the lives of millions, it has not brought many other indicators along with it. One of the thousands of slogans seen on the streets of Santiago in recent days has been “La alegría no llegó” (happiness didn’t arrive), alluding to the theme of the pro-democracy movement of the late 1980s. Social mobility, sexual and racial equality, environmental protection, secure pensions and many other conditions associated with a middle-income country do not seem to have progressed.

On the other hand, one area that has seen tremendous progress is higher education, with the number of students doubling since 2005. But although the Chilean state spends about as much as France or Canada on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP, Chile’s average tuition cost is one of the highest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Frustration with the high cost of education led to the student protests of 2011-13. These were nowhere nearly as sustained or violent as the current wave, but they were certainly a warning sign. And so was Piñera’s reaction. Although there were some policy adjustments, Piñera’s first administration sought to portray itself as a law-and-order government fighting a group of radical hotheads. Only when Bachelet ousted Piñera in the 2014 presidential election was free tuition introduced for families in the lower 50 per cent of the income distribution, rising to 60 per cent from 2018 – although the effectiveness of that policy has been questioned and it evidently has not quelled popular anger.

This time round, Piñera, who was re-elected in 2018, has reacted in much the same way. The strategy failed to quell the protests last time, and seems to be failing again, even though the police response has been much more severe.

This relationship between increased access accompanied by high costs and the resulting high levels of debt is mirrored in many aspects of life for a good portion of the Chilean population. While a not unsubstantial level of social spending has been devoted to lifting millions out of poverty, a new and expanded middle class has been left behind, saddled by debt. And although Chilean corruption is low by regional standards, a number of high-profile collusion scandals have left an impression of an out-of-control private sector, fixing prices and exploiting customers. The close ties between business and politicians, made evident in campaign financing scandals, have served only to deepen public mistrust in institutions.

One of the slogans of the 2011-13 student protests called for an end to “profit”. This referred specifically to the profits that many suspected were being made by private universities, despite this being illegal. Yet the slogan caught on, precisely because so many people felt that others were profiting from them. It became a code word for overall abuse.

No surprise then, that a few years on, these widespread feelings of exploitation have led to the largest demonstrations in decades, and that demands for more accessible and regulated education are accompanied by calls for a higher minimum wage, better healthcare, a more balanced pensions system, the renationalisation of the water industry and, most fundamentally, a new constitution.

If the academic world was one of the starting points of the current crisis, it may also offer a way out. Many Chilean academics are caught up in the fervour on the streets, yet the more cool-headed analysis and debate offered by academia offers a window of opportunity. In recent days, the government, desperate to bring an end to the protests, has announced that it will work towards the implementation of a constitutional congress. What precisely this means is still unclear, although one presumes that Piñera’s goal is to channel constitutional efforts through Chile’s Congress, rather than establish a special constituent assembly that many believe would result in a Venezuelan-type constitution.

This is an opportunity for academics to contribute through expertise, presenting comparative international experiences and introducing authoritative and responsible creativity. For the first time since the 1970s, Chile is in a constitutional moment. It is also an academic one.

Robert Funk is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chile.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Cool head in the heat of the moment

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