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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > March 2012 > Chilean Student Protests Challenge Status Quo in Education System

Chilean Student Protests Challenge Status Quo in Education System

Wednesday 29 February 2012, by Michael Reford

The Chilean education system is in need of a massive overhaul, and Chilean students have taken it upon themselves to act. In a growing movement that has attracted support from hundreds of thousands in Chile, and many more across the globe, students are demanding that the central government, and not neighborhood councils, sponsor local schools; that the state finance universities; and that student loans are provided by the government instead of private banks.

The Chilean educational system has been in need of change ever since democratically elected governments succeeded General Pinochet. Pinochet made education a private, and not public, matter. The state provides limited public subsidies to universities and the quality of education varies widely from institution to institution. Moreover, student loans provide banks with business, making the education system a profit-making industry.

But why are students demanding change now? One reason is that this generation of students did not experience life under Pinochet: They are not willing to be grateful that he has left, they want more than that. The student movement has grown strong as students have drawn support from the working classes, teachers union, and even white collar professions such as doctors and lawyers.

These disparate groups are all motivated by the systemic economic inequality within Chile. While the wealthy can afford to invest in their children’s future, people from lower socio-economic classes cannot, as they must shell out the majority of their income to pay for a decent education. This has resulted in an endless cycle of debt for lower classes, and increasing revenue for banks.

Chilean students are now employing a wide range of tactics to bring about educational reform. Online social networking has had a widespread impact in terms of international exposure and solidarity. The country is not alone in facing these troubles, and support has poured in from across Europe as austerity measures take effect.

Social media has also been used to rally thousands of students for spontaneous marches and protests. Live updates from observers and protesters on the ground have given a fresh new perspective to censored Chilean mainstream media. Direct communication between students from around the country is something that was not possible in previous student movements, thereby decentralizing them and reducing their effectiveness.

Further, Camila Vallejo, the media friendly cult hero and poster woman of the protesters, has helped to attract popular support. Vallejo’s presidency at the helm of Universidad de Chile student federation (FECH), Chile’s biggest student union, as only the second female in its history to hold the position, has been symbolic in a continent where women are often treated as inferior. Her charismatic leadership has drawn attention from around the world, as mainstream media rushed to embraced her image and the wider implications of her rise to power.

Although the mainstream media have focused on violent confrontations between students and riot police, this movement has been a peaceful one. Peaceful marches have attracted nearly 100 000 students and universities have been peacefully occupied for months at a time.

The battle between students and Sebastien Pinera’s centre-right government has been tedious, but the government has made some—albeit limited—concessions. Student loans have been lowered from 6% to 2%, grants have been announced for students with limited access, and there will be a 7.2% rise in state spending on education next year.

These reforms have not placated students. The recent election of Gabriel Boric as the new FECH President signifies a radical shift in student politics. Outgoing President Vallejo noted that the university’s 2012 leadership would be made up entirely of “representatives of the left.”

In this time of global economic uncertainty, education is key to economic prosperity in the future . Universal education is also key if poorer classes are to reach a higher standard of living and economic independence.

When Chile joined the OECD in 2010, it faced endless comparison to other member countries, and Chile lagged significantly with regards to the quality of education. While it has tackled the economic crisis fairly well, the country’s per capita income is less than half the average of other OECD countries. This may be because equality, innovation, competition, and having a healthy economic environment in general begins with a sound educational base.

The transition from the repression of Pinochet and the privatization of education to a universally free system will take time. The situation is not a simple one. Moving from a repressive, authoritarian style of government to one that will concede that change is necessary and that will listen to the demands of the people is not going to be a simple task.

The younger generation has gained some ground in empowering women and garnering global support through its use of social media . This new and refreshing progressive thinking may well be the foundation that carries Chile forward economically in a move away from the old ideas that the country’s mainstream politicians subscribe to.