Chile's proverbial education debate has this taken a new turn this week after a seven-month investigation revealed that a number of universities are illegally operating as profit-oriented businesses.
According to a report conducted by a special investigation committee, eight universities violated anti-profiteering laws amidst findings of increased salaries among executives, circulation of finances between companies under the same private ownership and outsourcing of services as means of generating revenue.
Among the universities accused are: Universidad de las Américas; Universidad Andrés Bello; Universidad Viña del Mar; AIEP-Andrés Bello; Universidad Santo Tomás; Universidad de Artes, Ciencias y Comunicación; Universidad del Desarrollo; and Universidad del Mar.
The findings of the investigation, which will be sent to the Ministry of Education for further action, exemplify the disparity between Chile's ever-growing student movement gunning for free, higher-quality postsecondary education and the perspective of Chile’s federal executive branch, led by billionaire President Sebastián Piñera.
Piñera's cabinet includes Ministers Cristián Larroulet and Joaquín Lavín who are both founders of Universidad del Desarollo. When questioned on the issue while in Mexico for the G-20 summit earlier this week, Piñera deflected attention to a youth uprising influenced by ideas that in his view are simply wrong: "Remember that the main leaders of this movement belong to the Communist Party and they have a vision of society that is very different to this president."
In his view, by resisting the growing sentiment among the population to enact education and coincidentally tax reform, Piñera is defending an education model that enables parents to have freedom in where they send their children to study.
Tuition fees in Chile cost $3,400 yearly, which—in relation to the average wage of $8,500—leaves the country with the highest education costs in the world. A study conducted last year by the OECD revealed integration of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds within schools in Chile is less than 50 percent. (The OECD average is 74.8 percent, rendering the Chilean education system the most socioeconomically segregated of OECD member states and suggesting anything but freedom of choice for parents.)
In his annual address to the nation, Piñera weighed in on the demand for free education, stating that it is "neither fair nor appropriate for the state to finance the education of the disadvantaged with the resources of all Chilean people." Leaders of the student movement believe this is exactly the mentality that must be abolished.
Vice President of Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (Student Federation of University of Chile—FECH) Camila Vallejo views education not just as a fundamental right, but as pivotal in the mechanics of Chilean society and that campaigning for an improved education system is just the vehicle for addressing wider issues that affect all Chileans.
Writing in El Huffington Post, Vallejo asserted that "Chilean students don't just want to improve the education that they receive, they want an education that serves to change society, to make it fair and more inclusive.”
FECH is also proposing structural changes to the binomial election system, recovery of Chile's natural resources, constructing a sustainable energy model, and moving toward effective decentralization. The student organization claims that the government is a adopting a selective listening approach in its dismissal of the proposal.
FECH President Gabriel Boric lamented the injustice of an education system that sees profits filling the pockets of government ministers, rather than benefitting its own students. "A person who burns a CD can go to jail, but these education entrepreneurs have profited illegally in full view of the authorities, that is unacceptable."
Boric will await a response from Ministers Lavin and Larroulet and he won't be alone. Followers of the FECH and citizens alike share concern over a system wherein the educational institutions profit illustrates an ulterior motive when educating the youth should be its first and last concern.
Nick Lavars is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a journalist and writer currently living in Santiago, Chile.