On Wednesday, newly-elected Chilean student leader Andrés Fielbaum outlined his approach for educational reform in Chile in the coming year, emphasizing the importance of the student movement in determining the outcome of the December 2013 presidential elections.
Fielbaum, a 25-year-old engineering student, was elected president of the influential Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (University of Chile Student Federation—FECH) on Tuesday under the platform slogan, “Create a Broad Left.” His election, with a little more than 44 percent of the student vote, ends the tenure of the previous FECH president, Gabriel Boric.
Like his predecessors, Fielbaum will have to contend with Chile’s problem of outsized student debt, lack of financial aid and the long-running conflict over the country’s privatized university system, a relic of Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Massive student protests led by FECH erupted across the country in 2010 as students and their supporters demanded educational reforms.
In an article published Monday in Americas Quarterly’s Fall 2012 issue on the Latin American middle class, AQ’s Richard André explains that some 40 percent of Chilean students fail to finish their degrees, and that even college graduates in Chile struggle to pay off their loans. “Unfortunately, high-quality education comes at a high cost. Chile has the second most expensive private university system of any OECD country, after the United States. And due to lack of financial aid, Chilean families shoulder 85 percent of the cost of a university education—more than any other developed nation,” writes André.
On Monday, the University of Diego Portales (UDP) released its annual human rights report, criticizing Chilean security forces’ “irrational and overblown state force” during the student demonstrations of 2010 and 2011. The report cites the controversial “Hinzpeter Law,” named after Chile’s former interior minister and current defense minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, which makes occupying public institutions a crime punishable with up to three years in jail. Although Congress approved a plan to reduce student loan interest rates last year and has promised to raise $1 billion in taxes for education, students are dissatisfied with the government’s response to their demands, and the protests have not abated.
“We aren’t disposed to sign papers, we’re not ingenuous,” said Fielbaum. “It’s very serious that the presidential candidates—Golborne, Allamand and Bachelet—do not discuss this subject. We have to be interpreting what they want and what they’ll propose in education.”
“We’re a movement capable of changing agendas. We want to influence the proposals and the presidential debates,” he added.