The World View - Students in the streets: What's wrong with Chilean higher education? Part 1

[Editor's note: This blog is the first of two parts. It is also complements Scott McLemee's piece today, "Education is in the Streets".]

August 31, 2011

[Editor's note: This blog is the first of two parts. It is also complements Scott McLemee's piece today, "Education is in the Streets".]

For three months now, hundreds of thousands of secondary and university students have taken to the streets of Santiago and other major cities in Chile their grievances against “the system”. Some 250.000 high school students (7% of the national total) are cut off from classes because their schools are taken by demonstrators on strike who stay barricaded inside their school buildings. Some 12 university campuses are similarly on strike and occupied by students. Just what it is that they are protesting against, or what it is that they are marching for, week after week, has become increasingly difficult to ascertain.

At the beginning, rectors of public universities instigated the student movement by publicly decrying what they see as an intolerable lack of investment of the government in the public sector of higher education, and staging dramatic denunciations of profiteering and “obscure lobbying” by private universities.

For the sake of context, let us clarify that over 55% of Chilean students attend private elementary and secondary schools, most of which are subsidized by the government, even though many schools are for-profit, and that in higher education four out of five students are enrolled in private institutions. The public sector accounts for a minority of the total enrollment and has been continuously shrinking since the early 1990s at both the K-12 and tertiary levels.
Rectors of public universities have a valid point: a recent study by the OECD and the World Bank stressed that public spending in higher education in Chile is the lowest as a proportion of GDP among OECD countries, while the same holds for public expenditures per student as a proportion of GDP per capita. Chilean public universities fund on average over 80% of their budgets from revenue sources other than government subsidies, chiefly tuition payments by their students, the less affluent need to take loans to meet these financial obligations.

In short, both in enrollments and sources of funding, Chile´s higher education ranks among the most privatized in the world. Rectors of public universities have long protested this state of affairs, but for the first time in two decades the growing general discontent with the rightist government now in office gave them the chance to unleash the only force that makes governments in Chile and elsewhere pay attention to rectors these days: students marching and battling the police along the streets of the capital city.

But what begun as demonstrations for more funding for universities and better conditions for student aid has over time morphed into a multifarious set of agendas of an increasingly political and ideological bent: ending for-profit education at all levels, free education for all, nationalizing the mining industry, calling for a constitutional convention to reform the Constitution, and ultimately changing the neo-liberal model of development that Chile has followed since the Pinochet dictatorship (with little if any corrections during the 20 years ruled by a the coalition of left-of-center parties). Pandora’s box has been opened and neither the government, nor the opposition, let alone the rectors, seem to know how to put the demons back in the box.


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