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From issue: China's Global Rise: Implications for the Americas (Winter 2012)

AQ Feature

Education: Chile's Students Demand Reform

Chile’s educational success over the past two decades would seem to be a model for the region. Ironically, it was precisely those advances—and the problems they created—that led Chilean students into the streets in May last year to call for an overhaul of the country’s higher education system.

Chile´s high school graduation rates have increased (almost 90 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds hold high school degrees, versus less than 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds), and access to higher education has greatly expanded over the past 20 years. More than 1 million students are enrolled today in postsecondary institutions, compared to less than 250,000 in 1990. At the same time, national and international tests point to significant improvements in the quality of Chile’s primary and secondary schools. The socioeconomic achievement gap also has narrowed. Today, 7 of 10 Chileans attending university are the first generation in their families to do so.

But student advances have also ushered in new demands.

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Higher education is expensive, and families and students have to cover most of the costs. Middle-class families spend nearly 40 percent of their income per child on higher education expenses—a much higher rate than in other OECD countries. And this trend is escalating. Tuition at public and private universities has increased by more than 60 percent (in current dollars) over the past decade. One result is a high postgraduation debt burden on many students. Chilean college graduates pay three to five times more of their income in student loans than their peers in OECD countries.

The rising costs and high interest rates have led many students to default on their loans. The high costs are complicated by the fact that university degree programs are also quite long—usually six to eight years—and completion rates are low; fewer than 50 percent graduate. As a result, many students end up stuck with burdensome debts and no college degree.

The problem—and public anger—have been aggravated by Chile’s unregulated higher education market. The government pours a large share of its education funds into public and private universities, demanding little accountability. Many nonprofit private universities that receive indirect public funding through subsidized student grants and loans are actually for-profit companies in disguise. In the case of these for-profit education ventures, shareholders set up companies and provide services and then lease the facilities to the university.

Not long after the student protests began, statements of sympathy and strong endorsements started pouring in from across the political spectrum. Seeking to capitalize on the movement’s popularity, senators and deputies, ministers, and influential domestic unions such as the Teachers Union, the National Confederation of Workers and the State Employee Union jumped on the student bandwagon. Even President Sebastián Piñera expressed support for the movement.

Adept at shaping public opinion, the students have been much less successful at influencing policy. The students’ web and media presence, their capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of students and sympathizers for large-scale marches, and their ability to occupy hundreds of state university buildings—locking out administrators and professors—have been impressive. And despite the waning patience among parents and residents who live in the city center where most of the marches are staged, polls suggest that most Chileans agree with the student movement’s essential message.

Congress has undertaken a number of initiatives to try to translate the movement´s demands into legislative actions. For example, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill in October to address one of the student’s most controversial demands: halting the funding of for-profit educational institutions. For-profits serve one-third of primary and secondary students and one-fourth of postsecondary students.

The government has also introduced bills that would expand student grants and reduce interest rates on loans. These legislative initiatives are currently under congressional review.

The challenge for the students is to convert their specific demands into policy. While the students have changed the national conversation on education, the route to reform has to run through the politics of Chile’s heavily criticized and non-representative two-bloc binomial electoral system.

The students have rejected the congressional proposals and have been unwilling to participate in any formal negotiations or dialogue with congress or the executive. Translating the visionary goals of a social movement into the murky give-and-take of Chilean politics of electoral calculation and legislative maneuvering has not been easy. Students consider the politicians outdated and unrepresentative of the society they serve, and have distanced themselves from the two major political coalitions, Concertación and Alianza.

In contrast, the most conventional higher education interest group in Chile—public and traditional private university presidents—is much better adapted to the environment of Chilean politics. From the beginning of the protests and at least through the end of last year, they have maintained a constant dialogue with the executive and congress. Most of their demands, such as increased direct funding for public and traditional private universities with few strings attached, have been incorporated in the 2012 budget.

Conversely, many of the students’ demands—tuition caps, stricter regulation and greater accountability for public funds allocated—were not included in the budget. While the students feel more comfortable spreading their message on social networks and on the streets than in the halls of congress, the university presidents have leveraged their governmental contacts and political organization to achieve their goals.

Currently, the student movement is divided on the best way to move forward. Some leaders—most
from universities in Santiago—recognize that despite the protests, students have had limited success at influencing the legislative agenda. They are more open to establishing a dialogue with the executive and congress.

Other, more extreme groups—many from state universities outside of Santiago—maintain that exerting pressure through protests is the best path to reform.

Their agendas must be reconciled. If students do not channel their demands through government and politics, the outcome may not only be inadequate reforms for future generations of students, but more marches and occupations in 2012—a result that is unlikely to please anyone.

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