SARAH VOLPENHEIN - 24 October 2011
SANTIAGO, Chile--Though regarded as one of the most developed and stable countries of Latin America, Chile has erupted with widespread student protests over the last five to six months. The Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH) is demanding equal access to quality education.
Education protests are not new to Chile. Dressed in their black and white uniforms, students took to the streets in 2006 in what is called the Penguin Revolution. Their demands of “quality education for all Chileans, irrespective of class, ability, or spending power” have not changed.
The Chilean education model has essentially flipped since Gen. Augusto Pinochet assumed power after the military coup in 1973.
“Chile’s educational model has changed drastically in the last 40 years. Before the Pinochet dictatorship that began in the early ‘70s, as much as 90 percent of university budgets came from the state. Now that figure is around 10 percent,” reported Al Jazeera’s Craig Mauro.
Advised by a group of Chilean economists called the Chicago boys who studied at the University of Chicago, Pinochet implemented a slew of neoliberal policies during his dictatorship. Neoliberal reforms encouraged free trade, reduced government spending, and privatized government-run corporations.
In particular, the protestors take issue with the high privatization of Chilean schools. About 90 percent of schools are private, and “40 percent of students attend free public high schools” according to an Univision article. Comparatively, roughly 92 percent of U.S. students attended public high schools in 2007 according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Chilean high schools are divided into three groups. First, there are private schools, often called “colegios privados” or “particulares”. Second, there are public schools, or “colegios publicos”. These are also called “municipales" because municipalities own them. Finally, there are the half-private, half-public schools called “subvencionados” because the government subsidizes them.
At first glance, privatization appears to be positive because it yields “the best education in the region”.
“In 2009, [Chile] outscored all other Latin American states in the OECD’s PISA rankings,” reported a BBC article. “These are used to compare educational standards across countries.”
However, on closer inspection, one realizes that Chile’s education system is divided along class lines.
“Of the 65 countries that participated in the PISA tests, Chile ranked 64th in terms of segregation across social classes in its schools and colleges,” said the BBC article citing Chilean Professor Mario Waissbluth.
Private schools are expensive, thereby limiting access to quality education for students from a low socio-economic background.
“If you are poor,” said Camila LeMaster Esquivel, a Chilean student protester and Ohio University undergraduate, “you go to public schools, which don’t really prepare you for college. These students don’t have the education to pass the exam we all have to take, the PSU.”
The PSU, or Prueba de Selección Universitaria, is Chile’s equivalent of the United States’ SAT, the standardized test that determines college admission.
There are four types of Chilean higher education institutions. First are the traditional universities, which only accept the highest PSU scores. There are 25 “universidades tradicionales”, all of which were founded before 1980. Sixteen of these are public and nine are private. Second, there are 39 new private universities. Both the traditional universities and the new private universities “focus on long-term (four to seven years) undergraduate programs that lead to the ‘licenciatura’ [translated ‘degree’] and to professional titles”.
Third are the 48 professional learning institutes. These are private institutes that offer four-year programs for professional degrees other than those awarded by universities. Finally, Chile also has 117 private technical training centers, which offer two-year programs.
According to a student activist video, those students who attend private high schools, on average, obtain significantly higher PSU scores than students who attend public high schools. Consequently, these students get their pick of universities.
Furthermore, the majority of higher education scholarships, over 50 percent, go to traditional universities, which require high PSU scores.
Students argue that, as a result of privatization, Chile’s schools care less about students’ educational development and more about turning a profit. Banners with the slogan “Education is not for sale” can be seen among crowds of protestors.
“Private institutions of higher education...sell you the degree basically,” said LeMaster Esquivel. “My mom was a teacher in one of the technical institutes of higher education. Well, she had some really bad students who offered money to her to get an ‘A’.... The dean told her that she should take the money and give them better grades. He said they had parents who paid both semesters at the beginning of the year so those girls could not fail.”
Meanwhile, many university students who want an education drop out due to mounting debt. An estimated 60 percent of university students finish their studies.
“Chile’s university fees are on average among the highest in the world,” reported Al Jazeera’s Craig Mauro.
The burden of paying these fees weighs mostly on the families. La Otra Prensa reported that Chilean families provide 84 percent of resources that finance higher education. Conversely, the global average contribution by families is 31 percent.
Since “no more than 20 percent of the population could finance the cost of higher education with their own resources”, many Chilean students and families take out loans. The lack of scholarships also drives Chilean students toward loans.
Although the government offered to reduce the interest rate on private loans from 5.6 percent to two percent, similar to that of loans from public universities, taking out a loan is extremely risky especially considering that 40 percent of university students will drop out.
“Students must get a loan to pay for tuition and then their parents get a loan to pay for rent and food,” said LeMaster Esquivel.
Since Chilean universities do not have dormitories, students must find the money for housing and transportation as well.
And oftentimes, transportation means more than a quick bus ride to school. Many students must travel long distances from rural homes to live in the city where the best universities are located. Indeed Chile’s education system is segregated between rural and urban with less funding, more unqualified teachers, and worse infrastructure in rural schools.
The best schools are located in megacities like Santiago. Living in a metropolis like Santiago is far from cheap. LeMaster Esquivel compared a students’ living costs in Santiago to those in New York City. Thus, student protestors are demanding that the playing field be leveled.
Students are determined to have their demands met. Unlike the 2006 protesters, they refuse to let their movement die. Although Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has stipulated that they must stop the protests and the occupations of the schools before the government negotiates with them, the students refuse. Armed with mastery of social media management, the students are continuing to mobilize the population for equal, quality education for all.