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Can we learn from the Chilean student protests?

18th March 2012

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In the last year more than 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.

Camila VallejoChileans have not seen protests as big as these since those for democracy in 1990, when the dictator General Pinochet was voted out of office.

Camila Vallejo, 23, has led the protest movement as President of the National Confederation of Student Unions, known as CONFECH since the Chilean Winter began last May.

Vallejo, since replaced by rival leftist, Gabriel Boric in a marginal victory at an election held 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.”

Chilean Professor Mario Waissbluth, as reported in the BBC, said the current situation in Chile is “educational apartheid.”

Vallejo said in a previous report concerning their support, “We believe this reveals something fundamental: that there is a global demand for the recovery and defense of the right to education.”

This message rings true in Britain as the current tripling of tuition fees questions whether further education is now a privilege rather than a right to equal opportunity.

The recent spate of student protests spearheaded by the NUS in the UK highlight the prevailing lack of amendments by the Government. 

As students scramble for reduced places and apply for loans triple the value of those in previous years, perhaps we can relate to the Chilean cause.

A recent law suit highlights similar sentiments in the UK, where British students Katy Moore and Callum Hurley argued that the Coalition Government’s policy which has allowed universities to charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees whilst cutting educational funds is a human rights abuse.

Yet, UK students are not having their voices heard, as the High Court’s ruling rejected their claim and the Government refuses to negotiate on tuition fees.

Innovative protests such as Kissathons, Michael Jackson 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 Chile’s 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 more 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.

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 of come at a worse time.

Prime Minister David Cameron argues that these necessary cuts and tuition fee hikes lead to more accountability by universities, “puts more power in the hands of the consumer.” Yet such arguments question what education means to students.

Vallejo asked “why do we need education? To make profits. To make a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute.”

As students, it should be our right to decide what education means to us. It is not only a commodity or a financial investment as Cameron leads us to believe, it is also about learning and experience amongst equals.

The initial call for educational reforms in Chile has raised questions amongst society, who now see this situation stemming 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 also shown support to students and have created a united front against the inequality that economic models have led to in Chile. The attention to this cause has seen President Pinera’s approval ratings slump to just 26% at one point.

So should Chile’s case be seen as motivation for UK students and as a warning to our Government?

Due to long occupations of Chilean schools and campuses over the year, many are now seeing the true costs as school openings are being postponed by months due to vandalism and students face the consequence of a seven month lapse in studying.

Meanwhile, some students who have been involved in the protests have been unable to re-enroll at some schools in the City of Providence due to their behavior in the demonstrations.

However, some would argue this is the price you have to pay. It is only us and us only that can decide how much our education costs.

As Vallejo said “It is always the youth that make the first move… we don’t have the family commitments, this allows us to be freer”. So if not now, when? It is not only the price we decide, but when. 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. 

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