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Chile's student protests could undermine president's approval

The education ministry says 180 schools around the country are on strike as students demand economic and academic accountability.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent / June 16, 2011

Students protest against the government in Santiago city, June 15, 2011, demanding for changes in the public state education system.

Carlos Vera/Reuters

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Santiago, Chile

Francisco Jorqueira, a Chilean student, says his private university is on strike, along with some 180 others across the country, to demand accountability after tuition rose from 3 million pesos last year (about $6,400) to 3.2 million pesos this year.

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Mr. Jorqueira's father earns 800,000 pesos a month, meaning that his tuition now amounts to four months of his family's income, he said while handing out flyers for today's march and student strike, which saw an estimated 70,000 demonstrators hit the streets of Chile's capital, Santiago.

Jorquiera is one of thousands of students protesting the state of education in Chile, a movement that is gaining momentum and could turn into a political crisis for President Sebastian Piñera.

Students have called for a national student strike to demand an end to privatization and profiteering in education, more scholarships, and increased public support for secondary schools and universities. Loans currently charge 7 percent interest, and the law prohibits students and faculty from having any voice in university administration, Jorqueira says.

A challenge for Piñera

The demonstrations add to a year of setbacks for the country's first conservative president since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990. President Piñera’s approval rating fell to 36 percent in May, down from 63 percent seven months earlier in the wake of the successful rescue of trapped workers at an underground mine, according to pollster Adimark. The public widely opposes the government’s approval of a new dam complex in Patagonia, fare increases for public transport, and rising food prices.

Yet the student protests could be one of the biggest setbacks he faces. The current marches recall the deepest political crisis faced by the last government, under President Michelle Bachelet. Exactly five years ago, students went on strike in a series of actions known as the "penguin rebellion" and held marches with as many as 790,000 participants to protest lack of investment in education, with most of the complaints centering on high-school education.

What do the students want?

The demonstrators have both economic and academic demands. They want increased public funding of universities, a year-round bus pass, full scholarships for lower- and middle-class students, and an increased role for the state in technical education, which is now handled by private institutes.

Academically, they want to end the use of a standardized test as the sole method of admission to the best universities. They also want technical institutes to offer liberal arts classes and are demanding guaranteed academic freedom. In addition, they are demanding more accessibility for people with disabilities.

To fund education, some marchers carry banners calling for the nationalization or increased taxation of the private-sector copper mines, which today produce more than half of the metal in this country.

While most demonstrators are peaceful, several student protests have devolved into violence in recent weeks. A march Wednesday ended with police on horseback and in armored vehicles chasing demonstrators around central Santiago. A group of students surrounded Education Minister Joaquin Lavin two weeks ago and began shoving, leading the minister to call for greater civility.

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