Chile’s educational and social movement: Quality Education for everyone… Now!

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By Dan Contreras

The root of the problem

In order to understand the educational movement we’ve seen grow over these past few years – becoming most radical in the last six months – we must go back to the genesis of the problem: the strict cost/quality relation brought about by the privatization of Chilean education in the aftermath of the 1973 coup d’état. In short, this means that in today’s Chile, the more you pay, the higher the standard of education you will receive.  The violent and anti-democratic takeover that put this system in place, traded in an economic model that allowed for strong state intervention in educational accountability and investment, for one which minimized government decision-making and encouraged privatization of state universities and growth of private educational institutions. 

Taking this path, State financing for public education dropped from 70% prior to the dictatorship, to an average of 17% in recent years (we refer here only to higher education). The vast majority of these costs were passed on to the students themselves, who now must pay their programme’s full fees in accordance with the degree they are to obtain and to the demands of the market.

Once education became an economically profitable territory, private investment skyrocketed. Tens of new universities, institutes, technical education centres, private and subsidized schools sprung up seemingly overnight. Such establishments, only admitted students if they could pay the appropriate fees, if they were able to take out sizeable student loans (either from the State or from private institutions), or – in the case of a handful – if a ‘solidarity’ scholarship was awarded.

The demands

Under these conditions, the gap between Chile’s rich and poor can be traced back to the chances each had of receiving a good education. The chain of events is all but predictable: the child of a low-income family will not be able to attend a quality school – recall the cost/quality relation –, therefore he/she will attend either a mediocre or sub-standard establishment. In order to get into a university, our young man or woman must take a ‘selection’ examination which – as it’s name implies – determines which students are prepared to enter university. Since the student at hand did not go to a high-quality school, preparation for this type of examination will most likely have been insufficient, barring him or her from traditional higher education. The booming educational market is, nevertheless, able to offer this student a chance to enter higher education through a private institution, even if this means shouldering a debt that will take a number of years to pay off.

Crucially, at this stage cost and quality cease to be correlated. In a great number of cases these private institutions end up insufficiently preparing professionals or technicians for the world of work, even when they have acquired a huge debt in the process. A new market law takes precedence here: increasing quantity leads to reduction in quality.

The core of the students’ demands are aimed at tackling inequalities such as these. The goal, ultimately, is to set aside the laws of the market when it comes to education, so that family income is not a hindrance to quality education. Although all of this may sound overly idealised, the movement has been characterized by student’s clarity in setting forth very concrete proposals: greater accountability for both public and private institutions, more public financing for higher education – ultimately leading to free, public education –, revitalizing traditional universities, and re-structuring the scholarship and financial assistance system.

Shaping interventions based on nonviolent action

The students are organised in two main divisions: the CONFECH (Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile) which brings together traditional universities’ student federations, and the ACES (Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios), the coordinating body of secondary school students. Although these are the most visible organisations – in charge of dialogue with the government –, the issues have brought about further organising at the local level. Such is the case of occupied schools, which have been watched closely by concerned communities. Although the schools have been occupied by their students, they’ve also been supported by communities including alumnae and family members. As a result, the official media has seldom been able to capture and broadcast criticism from families of the young occupiers.

The student movement is not, therefore, the students’ battle alone, but has drawn in other social actors. A broad front of protests has been set in motion and, along with it, an array of ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the current state of education. The most radical of these expressions was an extended hunger-strike declared by a group of secondary students, which ended with a number of them in public hospitals, facing critical undernourishment.

Alongside the more violent displays of social unrest, the marches, the regional and national strikes, there have also been a series of widely inclusive protests, appealing to the community at large. A key example has been the ‘cacerolazos’ (saucepan drumming sessions), which called families from the far north to the far south of the country to come out of their homes at a specified time with pots and pans and make a racket. The goal here was to support the students and to repudiate the government’s unwillingness to see eye to eye with them.

Prominent figures from the artistic and cultural scene have also joined the cause, showing their support by filming videos, or organising free musical and artistic performances for the general public.

Direct, nonviolent actions have, nevertheless, been the protagonists of the student movement. Most of these have been individual, collective and small-group actions. The use of personal contacts and invitations through social networks, alongside individuals’ motivation towards a common good – education as a right, not a privilege – has fuelled a number of actions that have become massive. Examples of this are the large-scale marking of bank notes with slogans against a market-based educational system, or hundreds of people’s ‘symbolic suicide’ which involved casting themselves to the ground en-mass in the streets of Santiago’s city centre. A further example was the staging a huge ‘pillow fight’ across the city of Valparaíso, intended to ridicule excessive police violence during marches.

The list of protests goes on: an 1800-hour continuous run around ‘la Moneda’, Chile’s presidential palace; a massive kiss-a-thon; multitudes of students performing choreographed dancing of such symbolic pieces as Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ or the Chilean 1980’s band Los Prisioneros’ hymn ‘El Baile de los que Sobran’ (the dance of those that were left out); music students coming out onto the street to play their instruments; or even bands of students impersonating animated characters, such as Dragon Ball’s ‘Goku’ who was seen fighting Market-Based Education to the death.

All of these direct actions have demonstrated that dissatisfaction can generate large-scale collective action, allowing us to leave our fear of state repression aside and take over public spaces as our own, as they should always be.

It is now six months since the protests began. We are seeing less and less of those first nonviolent, creative, direct actions. No doubt, people are somewhat worn out from the energy expended in the first couple of months. After all, this seems to be the government’s strategy: let everyone get so tired that the students’ demands will be dropped. Yes, there is exhaustion, but the marches continue, as do the schools and universities’ occupations. Even though we no longer see as many people out on the streets protesting, and the ‘cacerolazos’ have died down, people’s minds are set: Quality education for everyone… now!

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