Remember how Chile’s student movement effectively ground the nation to a halt in 2011? Led by a handful of fiery and determined leaders, students took to the streets in major cities like Santiago to demand access to fair and free education and a reversal of the policies put in place during the notorious Pinochet dictatorship. Chile’s students captivated the international media for a few months, but they’ve faded from coverage since then, so you might be surprised to learn that their movement has been continuing all this time, and it’s ramping up yet again.
The aspects of the Chilean student movement are complex, but in a nutshell, Chile has one of the most extreme income disparities in the world. University education costs about half the average annual salary of Chileans, and notably, only 40% of high school students are able to access free education. Consequently, students are forced from a very young age to make an extremely tough choice: do they want to go to school and expand the possibilities for their future and career, even though it will send them into significant debt that may be difficult or impossible to pay off?
Students are asking for free public education, stating that it’s a universal human right and something that never should have been dismantled during the Pinochet era. Now that Pinochet is long-gone, they point out, it’s time to move past the harmful policies of neoliberalism that damaged Chile and many other South American nations. Free public education could help address the drastic social inequalities in Chile as well as developing a more educated populace that could play a growing role on the global stage.
They’re also worried about the privatization of education and the larger implications not just for education but for society. Many nations have been grappling with similar issues as they confront for-profit education and ask if it is in the best interests of students as well as nations as a whole; in the United States, for example, for-profit colleges have come under close scrutiny in the last several years. Chile’s students want to spark an international debate, and they’re willing to give up their academic years to do it, if they have to.
It’s not just students taking to the streets. They’re being joined by educators and other education professionals as well as advocates and supporters who believe in their cause. Many are recognizing that education is part of a larger structural issue faced in Chile, where imbalances cannot be corrected by conventional means because people don’t have enough clout. In 2011, protesters were able to force the resignation of two key officials and bring about some policy changes, illustrating that their movement was working.
There are particularly important implications to the current resurgence of the movement, because Chile is about to face an election, and the current President, who has reached his term limits, cannot run again. As Michelle Bachelet advances her candidacy, many students are asking why she didn’t make education reforms during her previous stint as President (which was also marked by education protests), and they’re wondering if perhaps another candidate to support may emerge.
As a block, the students could have a significant effect on the vote, because at the height of their power in 2011, they enjoyed huge national support. Throwing their weight behind a specific candidate might determine the outcome of Chile’s election, and many eyes are turning to Chile as a result.
Photo credit: Francisco Osorio