Chile: Students aim to put better schools and fairer access at top of election agenda

Chile's high rate of university attendance makes it a model in the region, but students say profit-driven schools and limited opportunities for the poor make the system inadequate. 

By , Correspondent

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    Students hang out between classes at the University of Santiago, in Santiago, Chile, Dec. 2009.
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Chile’s education system has drawn global attention in recent years. On the one hand, the country’s high rate of university attendance makes it a model in the region. But beneath those statistics, students say profit-driven schools and limited opportunities for the poor make the system inadequate for turning Chile into a developed nation.

Protests over profiteering and student loans paralyzed the country for much of 2011, helping inspire movements from Spain’s indignados to Occupy Wall Street.

The protests unveiled shocking problems. Last year, the Universidad del Mar made headlines for a corruption scandal where the school had paid consulting fees to a member of the national accreditation body. It then came out that the head of the nursing and medical technician schools at one of its campuses had faked her diplomas and was teaching lessons downloaded from the Internet.

Recommended: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz.

Universidad del Mar and several other schools lost accreditation in the corruption scandal. Tens of thousands of students – not to mention alumni – were left stranded, having invested money and years of their lives in educational programs that were operating under false pretenses.

In this election year, the government of President Sebastian Piñera is touting its elimination of high-interest loans and increased inspection of private universities. But student leaders have filed a constitutional complaint against the education minister for allegedly doing too little, too late against illegal profiteering from universities.

High school and university students, who returned to class at the beginning of the month after the southern hemisphere summer, yesterday kicked off a new round of protests with a march through Santiago that was met with a barrage of tear gas and water cannons.

“If education changes, that’s a key to changing everything,” says high school senior Catalina Gajardo after leaving today’s march. “With a good education, one starts to question how the whole system works – health, work, housing. That’s not something that everyone wants to have happen.”

The presidential election shifted into a higher gear this week, as former President Michelle Bachelet declared she would run for a new term. Ms. Bachelet, president from 2006 to 2010, was the last in a series of center-left leaders who ran the South American country from the time it returned to democracy in 1990. Her chosen successor lost the 2009 election to the center-right President Piñera.  Chilean presidents can’t run for immediate reelection.

However, the students are determined not to let left-wing parties take them for granted, either. The left and right are “the same” on educational issues, Ms. Gajardo says. Bachelet faced her own round of education protests in 2006 and failed to address the fundamental issues, she adds.

“There’s no attempt to strengthen public education,” says Andres Fielbaum, who is in his mid twenties and is president of the University of Chile Federation of Students. Mr. Fielbaum is arguably the country’s most influential student leader.

The biggest problems, he says, are loosely supervised for-profit high schools with an incentive to increase class size and cut extracurricular activities; universities that claim to be non-profit while paying excessive fees to their trustees; and public schools that rely on local taxes, reducing the quality of those located in poor areas.

The government says it has made progress in increasing social equity in education. It expanded access to state-backed student loans, and slashed loan payments for some students. Recipients of the most favorable terms now pay a constant five percent of their income for 12 years, so their payments drop to nearly zero if they are unemployed.

The state is seeking to attract new teachers, offering full scholarships and even cash payments for students who enroll in a university program to become teachers. It increased per-student funding for each of the country’s 1.8 million enrolled students, and for the first time it is barring sex offenders from working in schools.

Those efforts, while laudable, aren’t enough, Fielbaum says. The state has offered scholarships to students who were left stranded by the Universidad del Mar scandal, so they can attend other universities. But Fielbaum wants to see the state simply take over the school and let students complete their education there, without making them go through a new enrollment process and start at less convenient campuses. The state, he says, took on the responsibility when it gave Universidad del Mar its credential, even if that accreditation was the result of fraud.

The basic problem is that the government’s reforms “weren’t what the students asked for,” says Marta Lagos, director of MORI-Chile, a Santiago-based polling company.

“We're not going to see any kind of change this year,” Ms. Lagos says. “There's no new policy from the government or from congress. This government has done what it's going to do. It will be for the next government.”

Lagos says she expects the student movement to remain low-key this year, as students focus their energy on electoral politics.

Protests this year may not have the intensity of 2011, Fielbaum says, but students are prepared to continue pushing to ensure that they are listened to.

“The movement has matured and learned a lot,” he says. “It’s the beginning of a very important year.”

Recommended: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz.
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