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Students revolt in privatised Chile

Benedict Brunker on the students fighting back.

A 2011 education protest in Chile. (Image: Osmar Valdebenito, Flickr)

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has reiterated her commitment to free higher education for all Chileans, following three years of intensive student action around the country. Her government plans to grant free tertiary education to around 1.2 million students over the next six years.

Chile is home to one of the world’s most heavily privatised education systems since the sweeping neo-liberal reforms of military dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s. This trend has continued through the “return to democracy” over the last two decades. Chilean students have been paying some of the highest education fees in the world – 50 per cent higher on average than Australian students. They have been paying 75 per cent of the costs of higher education, higher than any other OECD country.

Bachelet’s education commitments also involve the removal of government funding to for-profit institutions and free pre-school for all children. These are amongst the demands that have been made for the past few years by Chile’s large and powerful student movement. The movement gained momentum in 2011, when massive protests were triggered by the decision of the right-wing Pinêra government to increase funding to for-profit educational institutions. Minister for Education Joaquin Lavin was discovered to be an investor in companies that rendered services to these institutions, and stood to gain personally by the government’s decision.

On June 13 of that year in protest to the government’s educational policy, students occupied 100 high schools around the country. By July 19, 148 high schools were occupied. On June 30, something like 200,000 student demonstrators turned out against the government in Chile’s major cities. In response, President Sebastian Pinêra pushed privatisation still further by formally allowing higher education providers to operate for-profit, thereby codifying conduct that was already widespread.

On July 14, students marched alongside striking mineworkers in one of the largest demonstrations since Chile’s “return to democracy”. By 2012, police had begun removing students from occupied high schools by force, and began to occupy such schools themselves to prevent students from returning. The Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH) called for student strikes, some of which lasted up to seven months. Unionised workers engaged in solidarity actions, including most dramatically a general strike called by the Central Unica de Trabajadores (Central Workers’ Union). High school students repeated grades in order to participate and tertiary students suffered the loss of vital bursaries and scholarships in order to take part.

In spite of the disruption to daily life caused by two years of strikes, demonstrations and occupations, polls showed that four out of five Chileans supported the students and their demands. This, and the participation of workers’ unions in militant student action suggest a wider disenchantment amongst Chileans with the neo-liberal economics of the Pinêra government of which higher education is a symbol. Chile is the wealthiest country in Latin America – and its most unequal in wealth.

Though the right-wing military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was gradually overthrown through the 1980s, many of the hallmarks of Pinochet’s reign have remained firmly in place through Chile’s return to parliamentary democracy. Chile’s economic system is characterised by steady privatisation, market deregulation and restrictions on independent trade unionism. Though the children of the wealthy have little trouble in securing a quality university education in Chile, the protestors’ demands have coalesced around ensuring all Chileans have a chance at securing a decent education.

That higher education is only a part of a larger struggle in Chile against the legacy of Pinochet is perhaps evidenced by the election to Chilean parliament last year of two key figures in the student movement: Camilla Vallejo and Gabriel Boric. As Vallejo, a member of the Communist Youth of Chile, has put it: “The public understood that we were not just students who fought for our own interests and that the youth is also part of the process of a much greater social transformation that involves the rest of society.”

Lessons for Chile, then, and lessons for us. Chile remains the chief example in the 21st century of the ability of students to take matters of public policy into their own hands.