A bit over a year ago, unpopular weasel-boy Christopher Pyne tried and fucking failed to deregulate university fees. Then unpopular weasel-boy 2, Simon Birmingham tried again.
At times it might feel helpless fighting this Weasel Regime. How do we fight back? Why are their eyes so beady? Why are they so good at digging holes? But there’s heaps we can learn from the struggles of students internationally. One of the largest and most successful student movements in recent history has been in Chile.
The Chilean Winter was like a normal winter, but in Chile. It was also an upsurge of student struggle from 2011-2013 that challenged the highly neoliberal structure of the Chilean education system. This system is a legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Under his rule, Chile had one of the most highly privatised governments in the world. As a result, 84% of all tertiary education in Chile is now for-profit (and 100% of technical education), and Chilean students pay on average three-to-five times more than other students in the OECD.
The Chilean Winter mobilised hundreds of thousands of high school students, university students and workers. Links were built between the student union (CONFECH), and Chile’s largest workers’ union, the CTU, which allowed the movement to reflect wider societal discontent.
The upsurge also facilitated the election of a centre-left coalition of parties led by the Chilean Socialist Party, headed by Michelle Bachelet, who promised reforms of the education sector. Bachelet’s proposal was to subsidise education for low-income students, whilst still allowing for-profit institutions to operate alongside them. This two-tiered system of education is unpopular amongst students around much of the world – especially in the United States, where collective student debt is over $1 trillion.
As such, the demands of Chile’s students and teachers went further. They sought a complete
break of education from the market, and genuine democratisation of the management of education institutions, so they are run by teachers and students, not a government bureaucracy.
The protests are ongoing. The number of students projected to benefit from Bachelet’s reforms was recently downscaled by roughly half due to public spending cuts. In April this year, over 100,000 students and workers again took to the streets, condemning the government for failing to deliver on its promises.
One crucial reason why the Chilean student movement has continued growing since 2011 is the action and perspective of CONFECH. They didn’t simply tail a political party, or divert the energies of activists into elections. Instead, they prioritised nationally co-ordinated rallies and involved as many students as possible.
The evolving Chilean movement can teach us many things here in Australia. Crucially, that political independence from political parties of the establishment is an asset for student unions and movements.
The Chilean Winter also drove home that without mass movements championing the interest of students, there is very little counterweight to the greater pressure exerted by the establishment – vice-chancellors, politicians, CEOs and so on, who seek to squeeze every dollar they can from students.
I am sure that higher education will be free again someday. But that sure as fuck isn’t going to happen by sinking our hopes and energy into the election of damp Vita-Wheat Bill Shorten. It will happen when masses of students and workers give the powers that be no other choice, and shut down the schools, unis, workplaces until their demands are met.
We aren’t there right now, but someday we will be. We can start by defending what we already have. While Honi are heaps fascist and won’t let me plug this overtly, you should come along to the protest against $100,000 degrees, 1pm at Fisher Library on May 11. Find more info here.
Art by Amandine Le Bellec