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Students demonstrating in Santiago: 'We do not study to replicate the past, we do it to change the future'. Photo: FECH

As the Tories announce plans to remove the cap on tuition fees, Hector Rios looks at how Chilean education was marketised, and how students are resisting

Since March this year, Chilean high school and university students have shown clear signs of reorganising forces and launching a new wave of mobilisations to reclaim public and free education. Their particular demands at this moment include transparency on the contents of the new higher education reforms, involvement in its design and a public debate about the role of public education.

The spark was lit when the Chilean Confederation of Higher Education Students (CONFECH) called a national day of protest against the educational reforms proposed by the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet. And on 21 April, in support of the demands just mentioned, around 100,000 students and members of public flooded the main streets of the capital in a highly energised march that brought together the main national organisations of students, as well as teachers’ and other trades unions.

Just two weeks later, on 5 May, 10,000 secondary school students staged a heated protest in front of the Ministry of Education demanding secondary education be brought under state control. Then, as anger continued to build for another CONFECH day of action, more than 200,000 people joined demonstrations across the country, in the capital Santiago and other cities.

The actions have been seen as successful by students insofar as they have thrust into the political foreground the people’s disagreement with the current educational system and the reforms proposed by the government. A national spokeswoman of CONFECH, Marta Matamala, declared “students and workers have been protesting together; we are from different generations, but we share the same diagnosis: Chile requires deep educational changes”i.

Taking HE to market: a brief history

The Chilean higher education system has been hit with radical and persistent marketisation since 1980. Under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the military government opened up the education system to private investment and broke upthe national, free and public education system. The reforms included a reduction of public financing for universities and increases in subsidies for the creation of private universities. Consequently, the reforms transferred the educational costs from the state to the students and greatly increased the costs of courses for universities.

Then, under the democratically elected governments of the centre-left coalition (1990-2009), a new set of reforms was introducedthat only deepened the marketisation of the education system. The reforms included an increase in financial resources available for private institutions and, notably, the implementation of ‘bank credits’, allowing to students receive loans from banks to pay for their studies.

As students rightly claim, these policies have transformed the right to education into a commercial service, to which access depends on your (family’s) economic income. These policies have also spurred on the growth of social inequalities and economic discrimination, without providing guarantees as to either the quality of education or employment prospects for students.

Fees, debt and corporate handouts

A stark example has been the case of Universidad del Marin 2013, a massive private institution that was declared bankrupt, their faculties closed and their courses cancelled. As a consequence, 20,000 students lost years of study and family investment, workers’ wages were delayed for nearly a year, and more dramatically, the majority of students were transferred to new universities, keeping their original debts and being forced to take on new student loans to finance their new courses!

This last point, of student loans and debt, is a critical one for the current situation. Chile has the fourth most expensive tuition fees in the world. The cost of an average undergraduate course is around £15,600, taking up 73% of the average salary in Chile (at last estimation). And with the introduction of student loans, the average student finishes their course with a debt of around £25,000.

Still, during previous decades the state has increased public investment in education, yet without structural changes the majority of public resources have ended up in the hands of private universities and banks. Indeed, the national education budget for 2016 includes £632,412 million to cover the cost of loans offered by banks, meaning that 35% of the total budget is earmarked to subsidise and finance the banks’ loans required by students to access higher educationii.

Two decades of student rebellion

Faced with this situation, the Chilean student movement has fought for two decades against educational marketisation, demanding a public and free education system that guarantees the right to a high quality education for every citizen. The struggle started in 1997 when public higher education students criticised the raising of tuition fees and the state’s lack of investment in public education. When the government failed to respond to them, the students occupied the main state universities for three months.

Then, during a month in 2001, secondary school students directed protests at the minister of education and the private transport companies, demanding free transport for students and an increase in public investment in state schools. Nonetheless, the government proposed only a reduced price on student transport tickets, giving a financial subsidy to transport companies.

Striking back in 2006, secondary school students called a national protest demanding the elimination of educational legislation implemented during the dictatorship, the re-establishment of state control over public education and the democratisation of schools. More than 30 schools were occupied by students and their families and 100 schools were made to stop functioning during the two months that confrontation endured. Two years after this, the president Michelle Bachelet, against student demands and with concessions to the right parties, set in motion educational reforms that have advanced and deepened marketisation in the sector.

Most recently, in 2011, under the right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera, higher education and school students organised the greatest wave of mass protest in Chilean democracy. For more than six months students and educational workers across all country took over schools and universities, organising more than 50 national demonstrations that brought together around 150,000 people every week.

The demands were clear: “public and free education for all”, changing the basis of the education system and transforming the education into a right guaranteed by the state, with the direct participation of the public. Beyond the massive support from the Chilean public for the students’ demands, the political response was the same: repression and political negotiations between members of the establishment in the interests of educational corporations.

Neoliberal ‘free education’ and resistance on the rise

The latest educational reform in Chile has been ‘free education’ for the most underprivileged, implemented this year by Bachelet’s government. The policy has benefitted 125,392 studentsiii who are able to study without taking out loans and debts. However, despite some obvious merit in this policy, students have been very critical about the extremely limited range of beneficiaries.

The government had promised, after all, to give free education to 50% of vulnerable students during 2016 (250,000), but the current reform is benefitting just half that number. What’s more, students are denouncing the process of granting relief from fees as an expansion of current methods to subsidise private companies and transfer public resources to banks and corporations.

At the same time, the government has announced a new universal reform of higher education, yet without a clear logic and direction to it. With past experience in mind, students are afraid that the new set of reforms will represent a continuity of the liberal policies that aim to deepen the marketisation of the Chilean education.

The students have declared that without political action to open a democratic and public debate about the direction and role of education, the only option for Chilean citizens and students will be the escalation of demands and radicalisation of protest.

Indeed in recent days, student organisations have once again called a national day of protest for the last week of May and students have already occupied and taken over a number of universities and schools. Let’s hope the resistance grows.

i Translated from Chilean newspaper: http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2016/04/21/estudiantes-emplazan-al-gobierno-tras-marcha-los-avances-han-sido-en-la-medida-de-lo-posible-es-tiempo-de-avanzar-en-la-medida-de-lo-urgente/

ii Statistics provided by ‘Fundacion SOL’: http://www.fundacionsol.cl/estudios/endeudar-gobernar-mercantilizar-caso-del-cae/

iii Statistics provided by Ministry of Education: http://www.mineduc.cl/2016/04/27/543-los-estudiantes-primer-ano-accedera-gratuidad-2016-las-universidades-adscritas/

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