Chilean Students and the Fight for Education

In the last year, over 100,000 Chilean students, along with their parents and teachers, have taken to the streets to protest against the two-tier system of education within the country. The Chilean students demand educational improvement, including the abolition of tuition fees, and have been rallying support for almost a year.  Chileans have not seen protests as big as these since pro-democracy rallies in 1990, when the dictator General Pinochet was ousted from office.

Camilla Vallejo, 23, has led the protest movement as President of the National Confederation of Student Unions since last May. Vallejo, replaced as President by rival leftist Gabriel Boric in December, has gained international fame and support for the students’ cause. The key message heard across Chile is that “education has become a business rather than a right.”

Concerning their support, Ms. Vallejo said, “We believe this reveals something fundamental: that there is a global demand for the recovery and defence of the right to education”. This message rings true in Britain as the current tripling of tuition fees raises questions whether further education is now a privilege rather than a right of equal opportunity.

In Chile, innovative protests such as Kiss-a-thons, Thriller dances, hunger strikes and Cacerolazos (banging of household items in the street) as well as occupations of educational institutions have led to major changes to educational policies.

President Sebastian Pinera said, “This year we have the highest budget for education in Chilean history. One out of four pesos spent by the Chilean government is spent on education”. The government’s proposed 2012 budget has a $350 million increase for higher education, which will be directed to increase scholarships for students. In addition, the government has been forced to cut interest rates on student loans from 6.4% to just 2%. Interest rates in the UK stand at 3% plus inflation.

The main demand Chilean students have is to see an end to the ‘for-profit elementary schools’ created under Pinochet, which they argue reinforce inequalities, as only those who can afford it get the best education. But this year the UK government completely cut funds to the national Aim Higher Scheme, which aimed to widen participation in higher education by giving advice and guidance to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  With the new complicated loan applications, such cuts could not have come at a worse time.

Many think this situation stems from more deep-rooted social inequalities. Chilean student Gerado Celis said, “I think the whole problem behind this is the division and class separation that we have in this country”. Chilean unionists and pensioners have shown support for students and have created a united front against inequality in Chile. This attention to the cause has seen President Pinera’s approval ratings slump to just 26%.

However, many are now seeing the true costs of long occupations of schools and campuses over the year; with school openings being postponed by months due to vandalism, students face a seven-month lapse in studying. Meanwhile, some students who were involved in the protests have been unable to re-enrol at some schools in the City of Providence due to their behaviour in the demonstrations.

Some would argue that this is the price you have to pay. As Vallejo said “It is always the youth that make the first move”. If we want change, it is up to us to decide when we want it and what we want just as the Chileans are doing.

As the new term begins in Chile, many expect the protesters that have been quieter over the summer break to restart the movement and call for further demands that have not yet been met.

Kelsey Wilson

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