The Chilean student movement of 2011 is widely perceived as a successful social political and cultural refusal of privatisation in Higher Education, reaffirming education as a public good and that citizens have a right to free and quality education. This momentous achievement was celebrated by many supporters around the world, especially given the heavily market-driven context and highly stratified educational system in Chile. Michele Bachelet was re-elected as president in 2014 with a presidential programme that mirrored the demands of the student movement. The stage was set for the introduction of Free Education or “Gratuidad” – in other words, free higher education education accessible to all regardless of socio-economic background.
However, in the first half of 2016, the protests have returned with fresh anger. Many young people are unimpressed with the level of progress achieved to date. They feel betrayed and instrumentalised by the very politicians who they thought were on their side. Over the weeks to come many higher education students are deciding whether they will join the strike called by the student federation, and high-school students are taking over their school buildings and preparing to escalate a longstanding conflict.
A number of authorised and unauthorised marches have taken place with some ending in violent clashes between students and the police, rocks being thrown, and tear gas and water canons launched. Last week at lunchtime I was walking through Plaza Italia – a central meeting point for social movements – feeling the harsh sting of tear gas hanging in the air following an unauthorised protest. Seeing riot police everywhere gave new meaning to the idea of fighting for education.
The Gratuidad policy was introduced for the 2016 intake of students. But rather than free participation for all, it is in fact only students from the poorest 50% of households who are eligible. In this first year, around 125-130 thousand students have benefited from the reform which estimates suggest is a coverage of around 14% of total enrolment. These students are spread amongst the 25 traditional ‘CRUCH’ universities as well as 5 new private universities.
The low level of coverage it not the only issue here. Perhaps more importantly the policy as it stands fails to deliver on the fundamental model of what was promised. This is not ‘free education’ for everyone (or even all of those who struggle to pay), but rather an unstable system of higher education scholarships without a sustainable funding plan. According to the government the scaling back of the reforms has been necessary due to an economic downturn. But that explanation does not satisfy everyone, especially given that there are powerful private and religious groups in Chile with both financial and ideological interests in opposing or dampening the reform.
Bachelet has 1 year left to serve this term and her public address last weekend did not suggest any dramatic changes over the remainder of this time. The student movement also represents a broader threat to the existing balance of political power, pushing to change the highly unequal legacy left by previous generations. Unsurprisingly, it is met with resistance.
Who knows what the future will hold and whether the student groups will feel that they have really been listened to this time but access is only one (albeit very important) part of the problem. If this does not go alongside addressing social and educational inequalities that manifest much earlier in a young person’s life, as well as a reassessment of what goes on in universities and how they connect with and relate to wider society, then this fight may never have the impact that it hopes to achieve.
Figures from OPECH (2016) Minuta sobre gratuidad en Educación Superior http://www.opech.cl/minuta-sobre-gratuidad-en-educacion-superior/
Editor’s Note: Hazel Price is an ESRC funded doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol and a member of the Centre for Globalisation, Education & Social Futures. Her research investigates the multi-scalar making of quality assurance policies in Higher Education in Latin America and interactions with processes of regional integration. She is currently completing overseas doctoral fieldwork in Chile and Bolivia.
Javier Campos-Martinez is a doctoral student in the Social Justice Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his research interests includes the examination of teachers identities from a social justice perspective as well as the effects of neoliberalism on schools and teachers’ work conditions. He is also a current member of the work-group “Education Policy, education inequality, and the Right to Education in Latin America and the Caribbean” of the Latin-American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).