Chilean students in fresh protests for free education

June 2, 2012

More than 100,000 people rallied in Santiago on May 16 in protest against Chile's wealth-based education system.

The protest ― which included students, parents, teachers and unionists ― was part of an ongoing campaign that began in May last year. The movement has challenged Chile's education system, under which the quality of a person's education is determined by their ability to pay high fees.

About 70 people were arrested in Santiago after a police crackdown that featured water cannons and tear gas, said on May 17. Rallies also took place in several other cities across the country.

The protest came after a march of 80,000 people in Santiago on April 25.

The student-led protest movement has stuck to its demands for free, quality education for all, and an end to education being treated as a commodity, said.

It rejected a proposal brought by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera that fell well short of the movement's demands, said on May 17. Pinera proposed raising taxes on businesses to fund nearly US$1 billion of new scholarships and lowering interest on student loans.

Student leader Gabriel Boric said: “It seems very important to me to get the attention of Chile's congressmen and tell them not to vote for this proposed tax adjustment ― it is a measure benefiting the wealthy class.”

Chile has the most expensive higher education system in the world, causing many families to take on big debts to educate their children.

Prensa Latina said on May 16 that fees for one year at university often cost about 20 months of wages for an average worker.

Much of Chile's education system was privatised and funding slashed under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who took power in a US-backed coup in 1973. Under Pinochet, Chile's economy was used as a test-case for neoliberal economic policies, which included privatisation of public services.

The students' challenge to the education system strikes at the legacy of Pinochet and the neoliberal system that has spread around the world. The movement has also shaken Chilean politics to the core, as it is widely supported among the public.

Pinera's approval rating dropped to 24% last month, Reuters said.

Despite intransigence from the government, the movement has vowed to continue mobilising until its demands are met.

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