The Chilean Youth Rebellion

Rebelliousness as asserted by Prof. Viterbo Osorio Santelices, one of the most important ideologues of the Chilean University Reform movement of the 60’s, “is eternal and creative and a youth without a rebellious spirit is a precocious servitude…”

So much has been said about youth-led protests in Libia, Spain, France, Germany, UK, and Italy; shaking the status quo this year, but still nearly enough. In Chile the education protest movement led by the president of the Chilean Student Federation (Confech), Camila Vallejo, has organized massive demonstrations of a scale not seen in Chile since the return of democracy in 1990. Last week the protest movement brought together hundreds of thousands of people across the country, demanding better public education and social justice in one of the countries with, according to the Gini index, the highest inequality levels. Protest organizers said around 180,000 people took part in last Thursday’s march, making it the biggest in several weeks. Chilean students, like many others in the world, are refusing to endure any longer the perpetuation of a higher education system that reproduces inequality. According to the 12 points presented by the students on August, this will only change by means of a deep grassroots-based transformation of the system rather than with superficial reforms as the government has suggested.

automatic for the peoplePhoto taken by Davidlohr Bueso

The root of this problem can be traced all the way back to the Education Counter-Reformation bills promoted by the leaders of the neoliberal project during the 80’s and 90’s in several Latin American countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile—the latter being the region’s paradigmatic case on account of the lack of governmental barriers to their application. Indeed, the pillars of today’s Chilean educational system were designed and built during the military regime of Augusto Pinochet who in 1981 and 1990 reformed the country’s higher education system by abolishing free education and delegating the education to the private sector. Beginning with these reforms, Chile’s state involvement in higher education has diminished. There are currently only 25 public universities compared to 36 private ones, with the government providing only 14% of their funding. This is the reason why even public universities charge tuition fees that are often as high as private university fees. According to the OECD, university fees in Chile are the sixth highest in the world. As a result Chile has developed one of the world’s most segregated education systems, with insufficient state participation.

The Facts
Photo taken by Erwin Horment

Being founded upon neoliberalism, privatization, and a climate of over-expectation of social mobility, these bills only deepened existing social inequalities in the country. For example, in the last 30 years there has been a boom of private colleges that ironically are home to many of the poorest Chilean students that failed the Chilean higher education selection test (PSU) because of their education background. Most of them are students that couldn’t afford to pay a private or a subsidized school and therefore had to study in the municipal education system—the only public elementary and secondary schooling available today in Chile. According to experts, this is a “perverse” system that leaves thousands of low and middle-class young Chileans in debt as soon as they finish their studies. In this sense, Education in Chile has become a mechanism that reproduces inequality instead of being a mechanism of social mobility.

In 2006 Sebastian Piñera’s predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, faced a similar scenario with the huge student protests labeled by the media as “The Revolt of the Penguins”. Although the students managed to overturn the L.O.C.E. (the organic law on education established during Pinochet’s dictatorship), the results in practice ended up being very superficial and so did the real change. The students claimed then the same as in today’s protests: the responsibility of the State to guarantee the access of free public education with quality to everyone. Currently only 25% of the education system is funded by the state and the 75% remaining depends on the contributions of the students. The counter-argument of those who critique the student’s movement is based on the dramatic increase of the number of higher education students in the last quarter of the century, however this was only possible thanks to an equal increase of government-backed loans. By now most of Chilean families are highly indebted and university graduates find themselves not earning enough to repay their loans.


Photo taken by Davidlohr Bueso

Weeks into the latest round of protests, student leader Camila Vallejo expressed their intention to converge with the rest of the social actors such as the miners’ movement. Since then the protests have embraced demands for a new constitution that ends privatized education and guarantees quality education at all levels. Other calls include rewriting the tax system and renationalizing important mines. The increasingly political character of the student protests is helping to bring together their grievances with those of many workers. As Vallejo described the goals that students and workers alike are beginning to struggle for: “It’s time to change the political system, the economic system, so there is a fairer redistribution of power and of wealth… All this development model has done is make a few grossly rich.”

Following the acceptance of some of the students’ demands, including the withdrawal of two education bills sent to Congress with no input from the students, Chile’s student federation agreed to talks with the government after nearly five months of demonstrations. After an intense meeting, representatives of 25 student federations from the country’s main universities agreed to resume talks but also agreed on going ahead with the national strike planned for tomorrow. According to different surveys, student demands for increased funding for public education have support of up to 80 percent of Chileans, while Piñera’s approval rating has plunged to between 26 and 22 percent.

i This quote was taken from a message written by Chilean writer Eduardo Galeano showing his support to the Chilean movement. You can find it here.

ii Public expenditure on education accounts for 4% of the gross domestic product, compared with 7% in developed countries.

iii According to Raúl Irrazabal, from the Center of Social Studies CIDPA, 70% of students in Chile are indebted either to the State or the private sector.


Categories: Higher Education

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