Chilean Students Protest for Free Education Promised by Government


About 80,000 students marched in Santiago, Chile last week to protest against the delays of their government on implementing a promised plan to make education free.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s plan proposed free tuition for 70% of the poorest students, but the initial proposal has been decreased to cover just half these students.

“The proposal … has already undergone about seven changes, which have adjusted the free tuition to the institutions that already exist and not propelled the transformation of the institutions, which was what was hoped for,” said the head of the Universidad de Chile Student Federation, Valentina Saavedra.

Student representatives will meet with government officials to begin a dialogue about the education reform. Saavedra highlighted that the public supports reforms and the government now has an opportunity to act on it.

Chilean schools were once free for students, but dictator General Augusto Pinochet used a privatization boost to close the funding of primary and secondary education during his ruling between 1973 and 1990. Under Pinochet, public education was overlooked in favor of for-profit colleges. This trend continued long after democracy was restored in the country, the Latin American Herald Tribune writes.

The high levels of student debt and many for-profit university scandals drove students to protest in the streets during 2011. The unbearably high cost of education sparked the education movement known as the Chilean Winter.

“Despite a booming economy in 2011, Chile’s subpar (per OECD standards) social indicators, such as high inequality and unrealistically expensive education financing, led the social movement with enduring political consequences,” Daniel Lemaitre writes.

Just like many American university graduates, Chileans are also highly indebted by the time they earn their bachelor’s degree.

Among all OECD countries, Chile’s university costs are the most expensive relative to income. The average OECD higher education cost coverage by the student is 31%, but for Chilean students that number is 76%, GlobalRiskInsights reports.

While students cannot pay their student debts, scandals in universities have exacerbated the public’s discontent with the state of education. In 2011, the Universidad del Mar scandal exposed the university’s president and board of directors for making exorbitant profits while teachers were neither qualified nor paid by the university and students struggled to pay tuition.

Last week’s protest was peaceful, with students waving flags and chanting slogans urging Bachelet to continue with the free tuition promise she made.

The march, however, ended with a clash between the police and several citizens. The police used water cannons and tear gas to control rock-throwing hooded vandals that infiltrated the student protest.