Chile: Students set to win free higher education

March 31, 2014

Newly re-elected President Michelle Bachelet has reaffirmed her election promise to introduce free tertiary education in Chile — one of the demands of the country’s powerful student movement.

In elections in December, the New Majority coalition of centre-left parties won a majority in both the Chilean Congress and Senate. Bachelet, the New Majority candidate, was elected president.

On March 11, Bachelet began her second term as president, having served as president from 2006-2010. She replaced right-wing president Sebastian Pinera.

Bachelet and her education minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre have moved quickly to reaffirm their stated education commitments, and begun consultations about their implementation. A new law has been announced.

Bachelet has reaffirmed her commitment to granting free higher education for the most vulnerable 70% of Chilean students, or 840 000 students, within four years. Under the plan, all 1.2 million students will be granted free tertiary education within six years.

Chilean students have been paying some of the highest higher education fees in the world — 50% higher, on average, than Australian students. They have been paying more than 75% of the costs of their higher education, which is the highest student contribution of any OECD country.

Although there are government scholarships and loans, many students have been force to take out bank loans to cover their fees and have accumulated large debts.

Even if the new law is passed, there remain many unresolved issues in the implementation of free higher education in Chile. There may be conflict between Bachelet and students over whether free higher education is achieved through scholarships or direct government funding of institutions, as proposed by students.

There are also questions over which students will get free higher education first, what will happen with existing large debts, and how students at private institutions that have shut down will be supported.

Bachelet’s education election commitments also include removing private profit from all government-supported education institutions, providing free pre-school for all children, and the “demunicipalisation” of public schools, returning them to central government responsibility.

Bachelet intends to fund these education reforms, as well as other promised social programs and a structural deficit, by raising tax revenue by 3% of GDP (almost $10 billion).

Bachelet has announced plans to raise the corporate tax rate from 20% to 25%, close tax loop-holes for the wealthy and cut tax evasion.

The education reforms mark a step away from education being treated as a commodity that is bought and sold in the market place. It is a step towards viewing it as a social good and a human right, funded by government, that can help cut inequality.

These reforms have been achieved through political action by Chilean students, particularly the generations that grew up since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990.

In 2006, there was the “Penguins’ Revolution”, when hundreds of thousands of high school students carried out strikes and occupations of hundreds of schools. They were supported by university students and teachers’ unions.

In the 2011 “Chilean Winter”, hundreds of thousands of university students led protests, strikes and occupations of many universities and hundreds of schools that lasted months.

These student protests damaged the public standing of Bachelet’s first government and Pinera’s government. Neither administrations delivered on key student demands.

University student federations did not support candidates or political parties in last year’s elections, but their protests raised education as a key issue. Bachelet adopted key elements of the student’s demands in her platform.

Four former student leaders, including the two lead spokespersons for the 2011 protests Giorgio Jackson and Camila Vallejo, were also elected to the Congress.

The former student leaders in Congress and student federations leaders have said they will return to street protests if Bachelet does not deliver on her education promises.

Chilean students have demonstrated what can be won with organised protests. Under Bachelet’s plan, the contributions of Chilean students to the costs of their education will go from being the highest in the OECD to among the lowest.

In six years' time, while Australian students are still accumulating large debts, Chilean students will enjoy free higher education.

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