Students in the streets: What's wrong with Chilean higher education? Part 2

This is part 2 of an earlier blog.

September 11, 2011

This is part 2 of an earlier blog.

After removing the Minister of Education two weeks ago, the Chilean government has made substantial policy reform proposals encompassing all levels of education. For higher education, the new Minister is offering what is quite likely the most generous package ever put on the table in 40 years, both in terms of financial commitments and in responsiveness to the historic demands of the rectors. But the students want more. They want to change education as a means of changing the Chilean model of development. The rectors seem eager to grab what the government is offering, but they are either afraid of the reaction of the students or simply overwhelmed feeling powerless by the momentum and diffuse leadership of the students’ movement.

Moreover, the malaise has now extended beyond secondary and university students: other aggrieved groups are joining them in the streets to protest the lowly status of the teaching profession, to call for remediation of their high levels of indebtedness, to decry the sorry state of public transportation, or to voice their rejection of an electoral system that too often leaves the election of a candidate to her party with little real choice for voters.
Education, however, remains the rallying banner to which lesser flags cling: “Education” as in better education, free education, education free of profit, more public education, or education that really serves to level the playing field in a uniquely unequal society. In this the protesters are right: education is the key to a change towards more opportunity and equality in Chilean society, but the problem is that students want to have it all and have it right now, and that won´t happen with this government or with any other.

What comes next is anyone’s guess. As demonstrations turn violent, the student movement may lose legitimacy and social support (right now, everybody is in favor of free education, given that it is so hard to explain massively that there’s no free lunch) , and student leaders may be forced to sit and negotiate with the government on more realistic terms. Political parties and Congress, long ranked as the least trusted institutions in the nation, may find in this mayhem a chance to be seen as acting productively to bring the crisis to an end. Or conceivably the movement will become more radical, their demands ever more encompassing, and the violence and repression in the streets worse as the police finds it more difficult to restore order— in which case the problem shall become one of public security rather than education.

Much hinges upon the ability of the government to do something it has not yet done: to state clearly what it is open for discussion (say, more money for public universities) and what it is not (say, eliminating private provision of education). And to a lesser extent, although still important, that the rectors who pushed the students off campus and into the streets make their best effort to get them back on.

Ultimately, students—most of who don’t care to vote in national elections—need to be reminded (or taught) that the democratic thing to do if they want a fundamental change in the direction the country is headed, is not to persist in the streets demanding what this President and Congress will not concede to them, but to register and vote for the candidates who represent their beliefs.


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