On the same day students protested across the United States for “1 T Day“–the day US student debt will hit one trillion dollars–Chilean students officially inaugurated the new school year with mass protests across the country. The largest protest occurred in the capital Santiago, where thousands of students began gathering around Plaza Italia in Santiago Centro at 10:30 yesterday morning in preparation for the first official march organized by the CONFECH (Federation of Chilean Students) to demonstrate disapproval of the Chilean educational system.
Similar demonstrations rocked the country last year in what became known as the Chilean Winter–for it’s relation to the Arab Spring protests. Even though many media outlets have focused on an incident at the end of the demonstration when a small group of protesters lit a security booth on fire, and police subsequently clashed with protesters, the protest was almost completely pacific.
Estimates varied, but close to 50,000 high school and university students participated in the march from Plaza Italia through the center of Santiago, ending at Estación Mapocho where CONFECH leaders spoke to protesters. Far from violent, protesters seemed optimistic and gregarious. Students held large banners representing their faculty and university, and posters poking fun at public figures such as an artistic rendering of a naked Cristián Labbé, the ultra-conservative governor of one of Santiago’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Others danced alongside small marching bands, and enjoyed fellow protesters such as one dressed as Salvador Allende.
The carnival-esque atmosphere made it easy to forget what drove so many students to demonstrate in the first place. Despite recent legislative changes, Chile has one of the most expensive education systems in the world. Starting in elementary school, on average, private households pick up 40% of the education bill, roughly $400 per child a year (average monthly income is around $350/month), the highest of any country in the OECD. Furthermore a large number of educational institutions are for-profit, which ensures prices remain high despite varying quality.
The massive protest in Santiago comes at a time when President Sebastián Piñera has been publicly defending new plans to promote economic equality and opportunity in higher education. On Monday congress approved a bill that would lower student loan interest rates from 6% to 2%, and yesterday Piñera announced a new tax plan that would add an additional $700 million dollars to the budget. The President and his education minister Harold Bayer claim that these new changes would have a vast impact on the education opportunities for Chileans.
“This is a very profound change. It seeks quality and equal education. It establishes a system of credit that favors 90 percent of the students, and the state will provide the resources,” Pinera said, “Businesses will have to pay more taxes.”
Student leaders such as FECH (Federation of University of Chile Students) President Gabriel Boric said that the changes proposed by the government are insufficient changes to a system that needs to be completely disassembled and recreated. “We are not here to put make-up on or re-administrate the current system, but rather to create a structural transformation” Boric said yesterday.
Many commentators such as Bayer have argued that the structural critique of the education system embodied by the student movement, along with the call for free quality education movement are utopic and unrealistic. As the massive protest shows however, students, and the majority of the country that supports them don’t believe free quality education is utopic, but rather a basic right.