Santiago de Chile – Quebec is not the only place where a conflict between student unions and the government has set the stage for massive protests. Chilean universities were also paralyzed last year by a far-reaching student strike that shut down most public universities for seven months and forced administrations to cancel the school year. The reason behind the commotion: to put an end to private profits in the school system.
What sparked the strike was the fact that Chilean families spend more on education than in almost any other country, on income of just $16,000 a year, on average. According to the OECD, Chileans shoulder 75 percent of the total cost of postsecondary education while the government pays only 15 percent. By comparison, the OECD says that the government pays 40 percent of the cost of colleges and universities in the United States, and more than 80 percent in most other countries and jurisdictions, including Quebec.
Students in Chile spend as much as $10,000 a year on tuition fees, depending on the program. As a result, 40 percent of them have so much debt that their payments negate any increase in income that comes from obtaining a university degree, say some observers. They have started asking for free education.
That was just the beginning. The strike is over, but the protests continue and have mobilized approximately 100,000 people in the capital, Santiago, on three separate occasions since March, including the last rally on June 28. Labour unions joined this latest protest, as they have in Quebec. There were, however, clashes between protesters and police, which has not been the case in Montreal’s largest protests. What’s more, numerous polls show that education has become the number-one priority for Chilean voters, and support for the students remains very high – up to 80 percent according to some polls.
Now, university students have stopped boycotting classes but are adding more demands that take broader issues into account. “It was time to stop and think about the larger project,” said Luís Jaqui, a veteran of the student movement, explaining why the strike wasn’t continued. “We needed to put some structure in our demands.”
Most of these new demands revolve around one central problem: the current higher education system, based on the free market and minimal government control, is not working for Chilean families. “Public schools are bad. Subsidized schools are bad. And private schools also are bad,” said Mr. Jaqui.
Myriam Ramón agreed, saying that all levels of education need reform in Chile. She works for a non-government organization called Educación 2020 that is fighting for more government control over the system. She said the government doesn’t check the content of programs and the only controls “are standardised exams at the end of high school.” As a result, she said, 40 percent of teens who finish high school can barely read their own diploma.
Ms. Ramón and Educación 2020 say the government should have more input into the curriculum and that teachers should be better prepared and better paid. Currently, almost 70 percent of elementary school teachers don’t have the competencies required to teach, according to a recent report from the Chilean ministry of education.
The problem: the Constitution
President Sebastian Piñera and education minister Harald Beyer have been reluctant to shift away from the free market policies that govern the current education system. “Chile had a policy of free education before, but the evaluation was pretty negative,” said Mr. Beyer last May. In April, the government offered a $700-million increase in public funding for the entire education system – a smaller increase than in the previous three budgets – and a reduction in the interest on student loans from an average six percent to two percent. The students rejected the offer outright.
But even if Mr. Piñera were willing to take control of education, he couldn’t, according to Luís Casado, editor of the left-leaning magazine Politika: “There is a giant wall that is opposed to democratic solutions. That wall is called the Constitution.”
Article 19.11 of the Chilean Constitution – inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship – states that “Freedom of teaching includes the right to open, organize and maintain educational establishments. Freedom of education has no other limitations but those imposed by morals, good customs, public order and national security.”
The constitution goes on to say that a law would provide the state with the means of setting norms and ensuring that they are respected, but, as Ms. Ramón pointed out, that law only covers the bare minimum when it comes to quality control.
Getting profit out of the equation
Students and other groups are angry that some schools are not run to meet the needs of students, but rather solely to make money. Turning a profit on a school is illegal in Chile, but many schools have found ways around this. One of the more popular methods is to create a new business that owns the land on which the school sits, making it pay a hefty lease.
Getting rid of this kind of profit-making has now replaced free education as the central demand of protesters. Mr. Casado, a popular conference speaker within the political left in Chile, asked the students to demand not only more money and more state control, but also a new constitution that would allow the state to take control of education. They did just that.
The main obstacle now is Congress. Many politicians, both in power and in opposition parties, have current or former ties with privately owned schools, yet only Congress can change the Constitution. What remains to be seen is whether support for the students will translate into votes for other parties in the next election, but that isn’t scheduled for another two years. The biggest difficulty for protesters will be to keep the movement going over the long term.
Students in Quebec face the opposite problem: while the Charest government is unpopular in many domains, public opinion polls have favoured a hike in tuition fees, and the next election could come as early as September. Political opponents may have to focus on other issues if they wish to replace the Liberals.
Olivier Robichaud has a degree in communications from Université de Sherbrooke, where he is now completing a graduate program in sociolinguistics.