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Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that wouldn’t get rid of the Department of Education if it were running for President.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the 2011 student protest movement in Chile and how protests over education are a sign for a larger societal issue within the country. We also look at the “Chilean Winter’s” relation to the OccupyWall St. (OWS) movement in the U.S. and its part in the worldwide democratic movement. From this analysis, we can ask the question: “is public concern over education a real concern for the direction of society and if so, does politics and cronyism currently rule?” (Ok, that was 2 questions)
University and secondary students began protesting the Chilean government of President Sebastien Piñera in May of this year organized mainly around the high costs of higher education, a lack of government protection of public school systems, and a system that rewards affluent students. While the peak of the protests were back in August, protests and marches continue, as does the decline in approval rating of President Piñera plummets to 26%. In what has been dubbed the “Chilean Winter” after the Arab Spring movement (side note: Even though the coriolis effect changes the flow direction of fluids in the S. hemisphere, it apparently has not reached popular political thought). protests have garnered up to 100,000 participants and have effectively “occupied” several university and secondary school campuses around the country. The movement is reflective of the youth protests of 1981 during Pinochet’s dictatorship.
University students mainly lead the protests and are represented largely by CONFECH, the national body of student government associations in Chile. High school and middle school students make up a surprisingly large number of protesters and together with the university students have compiled demands for the implementation of significant changes within the education system in Chile. Hunger strikes, “kiss-ins”, and large group demonstrations have all been commonplace during the movement which has garnered strong support from many sectors across Chile.
Demands in general ask for : (the official student organization demands, in Spanish obviously)
- Higher Education to be more affordable and accessible (reduced tuition costs and equitable admissions tests).
- An end to profit seeking education institutions (which, according to the students, place education and student priorities second)
- Allowing student participation in University governance.
The government responded fairly quickly to the protests and demands with a plan on August 21 that addressed many of the student demands:
- a constitutional guarantee to a quality education
- allowing student participation in university governance
- the end of local control over public secondary education
- increase university scholarships and provide help for people with unpayable student debt.
Student leaders rejected this proposal however citing that the most important demand was not met: the end to the for-profit educational model. Chile’s Government says that it can only support an education plan with a mix of state and private support. Protests have continued nearly non-stop, with hardly a day going by without some protest rallying down the Alameda.
So what’s the deal with these protests? Why are young people gathering in the thousands and demanding change in a country that is in a relatively good economic standing?
Their main problem? That the emphasis of the Chilean education system is on profit instead of educating young Chileans, and addressing other social issues.
In 2011, only 45% of high school students study in public schools, and the vast majority of Universities are private. This system began in 1981, during the long rule of dictator Gen. Augustin Pinochet when he encouraged the development of for-profit universities. Before Pinochet took power in a coup in 1973 (ousting populist president Salvador Allende), there were 8 public universities in Chile, and a much smaller student population of 150,000. The Pinochet regime reduced funding for education and many private Universities started to account for the rise in college students.
The reach of reduced public education funding
affected the public school system down to the elementary level. In 2006, the “Penguin Revolution”, a protest movement against primary and secondary school inequalities and a lack of quality education, sought to reform the deep inequalities between the underfunded public schools and the well funded (by tuition and government subsidies) private and charter schools. A system that clearly favors wealthier families, enough to be declared “educational apartheid.” Chile only spends 4.4% on education, versus the UN recommended 7%. There is also no organized system of grants or subsidies to complete longer term degree programs at the university level.
Today, there are 1.1 million students out of the total 17 million people living in Chile. With less public options, students and their families who wish to pursue higher education have had to take out expensive student loans to pay for expensive tuition costs. This, as many of my fellow recent college grads in the U.S. can attest (nodding heads sadly), is quite a burden for families and individuals. This movement is showcasing that:
- Chilean higher education is neither affordable or accessible. For those who can afford tuition or the loans needed to pay for education, the system works and produces many educated and productive citizens. But for the majority of folks who can’t, it leaves families stricken with debt, and often without the option of higher ed. Many of those privileged students see the problem of inequality and have turned out to join the protests.
- Chile’s primary and secondary school system needs to change because there is a growing divide in the education that a better funded charter or private school provides and an underfunded public or charter school provides.
To the protesting students, this is clearly not just about education; but an overall problem with a government that is focused and tied closely to the private sector (capitalist interests of businesses) and ignoring the growing gap between rich and poor. This can be seen in the huge June protest against Piñera’s government initiative to build a hydro-electric power damin Patagonia, a natural reserve. While the protests were an offshoot of the education reform protests, the polls showed 60% of Chileans opposed the dam project; evidence that Chile’s government is not listening to the public. Protesters have also joined in on larger social issues such as workers rights for the transportation and mining industries, full gender righs for homosexuals, and trade reform for farmers. These movements reflect a general uneasiness and distrust from the public of the government.
President Piñera appears to be the problem. A Harvard trained economist and self-made billionaire, he is the 3rd richest man in Chile, and as promised, delivered sound fiscal management. This of course, meant that social programs were not going to be funded fully, or sufficiently. Chilean youth’s discontent with politics and the type of candidate Mr. Piñera was shows their mindset is to oppose policies that favor the rich and privileged, and therefore the representatives of privilege, eg. Mr. Piñera. This should strike a chord with the Occupiers who recently “vacated” Zuccotti Park and the tents on Berkeley’s campus.
A similar trend appears across the democratic movements around the globe this year within the Western countries this year (not including Arab Spring participants):
- An opposition to Government legislation that helps or favors the elite or rich, instead of policies that directly help the majority of citizens.
Chile is the perfect showcase example of the young populist protest movement because since the main issue is education, it shows how lack of government investment in its own people has created gaps that the private sector cannot cover. This evokes my previous argument that private sector solutions (not including social businesses) to social problems are not solutions to the social issue because the goal is a profit instead of a quality education. You are left with a separate and unequal system and discontented youth who are stripped of opportunity.
It will be interesting to see how this movement progresses in time with the OWS movement and the Euro austerity protests, and see if all movements recognize their common footholds, even if they are inherently different on many levels.
Until next time, keep it real!
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson